Water district wins desal appeal

05/30/2013

A desalination plant proposed by Marin Municipal Water District over a decade ago won a small victory when an appeals court this week struck down a Marin County Superior Court ruling that found the project’s Environmental Impact Review (EIR) inadequate.

Research for the proposed desalination plant, which was given a green light after voters approved a measure in 2010, was put on hold due to decreased water use shortly before the passage of the measure, which required further voter approval before construction could begin. Still, a spokeswoman said the district could bring the project out of hibernation under certain circumstances.

“It could be an extreme drought or a change in our long-term water supply situation,” said Libby Pischel, the district’s public information officer. But, she added, “we don’t foresee those conditions occurring in the near future at all.”

North Coast Rivers Alliance, which filed the suit, expressed disappointed in the ruling. But petitioner Peter Lacques, a lawyer and Fairfax resident, argued that “The appellate court ruled on whether the EIR process was followed,” not whether or not the project itself is environmentally friendly.

In her 2011 Superior Court ruling, Judge Lynn Duryee agreed with the alliance that the project was “unnecessary because water conservation costs nothing, has no negative environmental effects and is more effective than the [desalination project].”

The appellate court disagreed, writing in its opinion that the water district followed the EIR process and that the project’s environmental provisions were adequate. More than once it said that “differences of opinion” about the merits of a project do not in themselves invalidate an EIR.

While the environmental review includes offsets for the plant’s energy use, Mr. Lacques believes it will consume “a huge volume of renewable energy that could be going to other uses” as well as open up the county to more development. Ms. Pischel said the water district does not believe a desalination plant would promote growth.

The proposed plant, pulling seawater from San Rafael Bay, would initially produce five million gallons per day and would have the capacity to expand to 15 million. News reports from past years estimated its cost at around $100 million. Among other impacts, opponents to the plant fear its discharges would harm water quality, though the appellate judge ruled that the district plan included sufficient preventative systems.