08 • 13 • 2015

Surfrider Protecting Our Ocean From Desal

By Staley Prom

Written by Surfrider Legal Intern Ian Cecere

California’s historic drought and general thirst for water has led state and local officials to seek alternative sources of fresh water. One of the proposed alternatives is seawater desalination (or “desal”), which removes salt and minerals from ocean water to produce suitable drinking water. Recently Surfrider Foundation noticed that proposals for desal projects have picked up particular momentum in the Monterey Bay area in California, and has been engaging to ensure the projects are carried out only as absolutely necessary and in a way that minimizes environmental impacts. 

While the prospect of converting ocean water into fresh water may be alluring to parched communities, desalination comes with a host of environmental problems. Desalination creates a new need for energy since the process itself is very energy intensive, thereby increasing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, two of the three proposed desalination plants in the Monterey Bay area look to employ on open ocean intake systems, which cause marine life mortality through impingement (pinning and trapping fish or other species against the intake structure screens) and entrainment (when intake pipes suck in and kill small species like plankton, fish eggs, and larvae) of species, and risks disrupting an area’s entire ecological balance.  Additionally, desalination produces highly concentrated brine that is discharged back into the ocean, which can increase salinity levels of the marine environment. Its impact on marine ecology is one of the major concerns associated with desal. Brine may also contain heavy metals from corroding equipment and can cause thermal pollution if the discharge is warmer than the receiving waters. In response to these and other concerns, in May 2015, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted a new Desalination Amendment into the California Ocean Plan that contains requirements with respect to intake structures, brine discharges, etc., with which desal projects must comply.

Generally, desalination projects trigger the federal National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and in California, the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), which require preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) or Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”), respectively. These environmental reviews require that all substantial environmental impacts from the projects are considered, all project alternatives are considered, and mitigation efforts are made to limit environmental harm.

As part of the process, and in response to the numerous desal proposals around Monterey Bay, members of the Surfrider Foundation Monterey and Santa Cruz Chapters and Surfrider Foundation staff have been collaborating and submitting public comments on the projects in order to protect their coast.  Surfrider recently submitted comments on DeepWater Desal's Monterey Bay Regional Water Project desalination project, which would take in up to 63 million gallons of seawater per day from an open ocean intake pipe located in the Monterey Submarine Canyon.  Surfrider Foundation also recently submitted comments on the People's Moss Landing Desalination Project, which would take approximately 12 million gallons of seawater per day from an open ocean intake pipe located approximately 50 feet off the coast near Moss Landing Harbor.  Surfrider’s comments noted that these projects must comply with the new Desalination Amendment requirements. For example, both projects must determine whether the use of subsurface intake systems, which are generally much less harmful to marine life, is feasible, instead of proceeding with open ocean intakes. In addition, both projects would be discharging brine into the federally protected Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, potentially injuring protected species and marine environments.  To understand potential impacts to this special ecosystem, Surfrider noted that brine discharge and dilution impacts to the environment must be considered.  Further, brine salinity and dilution would need to be within government-mandated levels, and alternatives to reduce impacts, including downsized - or no - projects and the latest diffuser technologies, must be considered.

Additionally, attorneys at Shute, Mihaly, and Weinberger have worked with Surfrider Foundation to submit comments for the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project desalination plant on behalf of the Monterey Chapter.  Meanwhile, the Pure Water Monterey Groundwater Replenishment Project (PWMGRP), another project Surfrider weighed in on, will collect and treat various source waters (including from nearby sloughs and agricultural wash, but not ocean water) to recharge a groundwater basin and augment an existing local seawater intrusion project, and its approval or disapproval will impact the size of the proposed Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project desalination plant.  If the PWMGRP is approved, the desalination plant would operate at a smaller capacity and have less environmental impacts. While the Surfrider Foundation generally supports the PWMGRP, our comments addressed concerns regarding brine discharges from the project, and specifically, the cumulative impacts given other proposed desalination projects and other brine discharges in the area.

Surfrider will continue to monitor and stay engaged in these projects and others proposed around the country to ensure that desal projects are limited to the minimum necessary, environmentally responsible approaches are taken (including compliance with California’s new Desalination Amendment), and will continue to promote water conservation.  With over 15 currently proposed projects just in California, there is a lot of work to be done.  To learn more and get involved, find a local Surfrider Foundation chapter near you.