Marin County, Calif., Desalination Plant Put on Hold

A report concluded that barring a major drought, the “district has adequate supply to meet future demand through 2040 in average years and in the first two years of a multiple-year drought.”

by Mark Prado, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. / May 2, 2016
The Claude "Bud" Lewis Desalination Plant. John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

(TNS) -- A precipitous drop in water use in Marin over the last decade has rendered the need for a desalination plant virtually non-existent.

The Marin Municipal Water District has released its draft 2015 Urban Water Management Plan, a long-range report submitted to the state Department of Water Resources every five years. The state requires it of larger water providers.

The report concludes that barring a major drought the “district has adequate supply to meet future demand through 2040 in average years and in the first two years of a multiple-year drought.”

A decade ago, the county was consuming an annual average of 36,000 acre feet a year — there are 325,851 gallons in an acre foot — and water managers feared a supply gap would develop. That led to a study of a desalination plant near the Rod and Gun Club at the foot of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

A 5-million-gallon-per-day desalination plant, expandable to 15 million gallons per day, was approved by the water district board in August 2009. But by 2010 the water board decided to halt further planning work on the $115 million reverse osmosis technology project as water demand declined.

That trend continues today, with the district providing roughly 21,000 acre feet of water in the last 12 months, said water board member Larry Bragman.

“We have conserved our way out of it,” he said. “We have created a reservoir of conservation.”

Bragman credits people’s habits as well as better plumbing fixtures, removal of large swaths of water-thirsty turf and district water recycling plans in helping drive down demand.

The statewide drought has forced local providers to cut back. State orders issued last May require the Marin Municipal Water District to cut use by 20 percent compared to 2013. But even before the edict, water use was already on the wane.

“By pushing conservation, we fundamentally altered what the demand projections are, and at the fraction of the cost of desalination,” said Cynthia Koehler, water board president. “In many ways Marin is a model of where California is going.”

The desalination plant is not entirely gone. In September 2013, the state Supreme Court upheld — by refusing to hear the case — a lower court ruling that said the water district complied with the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved an impact report for the project.

While is has no more legal impediments, its plan to send bay water to taps is nowhere close to reality.

Water board member Jack Gibson said desalination is no longer discussed as an option.

But he cautioned the district can only survive a drought for two years before customers would face austere, mandatory cutbacks.

“We are in sound shape as long as we won’t have extreme drought,” he said. “There is no need to bring in a mega-project like desalination for the time being, but it would be good to have on the back burner in an event like that.”

©2016 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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