Thursday, June 15, 2006| While a plan to turn seawater into drinking water in Carlsbad secured City Council approval Tuesday night – something the desalination plant’s backers hailed as a significant milestone – many see the largest battle still looming.

The council’s 4-to-0 vote came a month after the city’s planning commission unanimously approved Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources Corp.’s proposal to build a plant that would produce 50 million gallons of drinking water each day – enough to supply more than 100,000 homes.

But the project’s future has long been seen as resting in the hands of the California Coastal Commission, which regulates land use along the coast. That fight remains.

Council members hailed their decision as a step toward a reliable, drought-free water supply. Memories of California’s early 1990s drought drove the project, Mayor Bud Lewis said.

“You turn on the faucet and there it is,” Lewis said. “But when it stops, all hell breaks loose. … You’ve got to have other sources when the earthquake hits or when a natural disaster cuts off our supply.”

The desalination project’s environmental impact report received a lengthy 396-day vetting by city officials and concerned residents. But critics say a lack of local opposition results from Carlsbad’s water-purchase deal with Poseidon. The city stands to get a drought-free water supply at a low cost.

The plant is proposed at the Encina Power Station, an aging power plant. The plant draws in millions of gallons of seawater each day, so the intake infrastructure already exists to create the desalination plant.

But each year the power plant kills billions of organisms – fish, larvae and plankton. Environmentalists fear the desalination plants would exacerbate damage to marine life, while creating an excuse to keep the decades-old plants open.

Environmentalists repeated those points to Carlsbad officials Tuesday night. But City Council members dismissed the environmental concerns, saying they’d been addressed by an extensive environmental impact study.

While environmentalists disagree, many in that community say the city, which has a vested interest in the plant’s operation, wasn’t the best place to put up a fight. Many of the 10 opponents who spoke against the project didn’t even stick around for the council’s expected decision. (Thirteen residents spoke in favor of it.)

Environmentalists instead point to the Coastal Commission as their Little Bighorn, the step in the permitting process where they hope to see an independent examination. The commission would be the final approval step for Poseidon’s plan.

“So far this project has been treated with the kid gloves by the decision-makers,” said David Hogan, director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands Program. “We’re optimistic that it will actually be taken seriously and looked at with a real critical eye by the Coastal Commission.”

But some question whether it will be fair. Michael Madigan, the former chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority and California Water Commission, called the coastal permitting process “a serious hurdle.”

Madigan, who works as a Poseidon consultant, questioned the Coastal Commission’s objectivity. The commission has publicly announced its concerns about the desalination project.

“One worries about what kind of hearing this is going to get,” Madigan said. “This needs to be heard on its merits. If they’re already prejudging things at the staff level, that’s going to make it harder to get heard on the merits.”

Tom Luster, a Coastal Commission analyst, said the commission isn’t biased and will give case-by-case consideration to any desalination project.

Luster said Poseidon must still address two major issues: The plant’s effect on marine life and whether an increased water supply would encourage residential growth.

“The main concerns are at the local level,” Luster said. “What is the decision-making process for determining where the water will go? Will those decisions be based on the approved local plans or does the water go to the highest bidder?”

Poseidon plans to submit its application to the Coastal Commission sometime in late summer. The State Regional Water Control Board must still approve the plant’s discharge permit. The board had been expected to approve the permit Wednesday, but postponed its decision to allow the public to review some technical changes to the permit. The board again meets in August.

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