OCEANSIDE, Calif. — The California Coastal Commission approved a plan to build the Western Hemisphere's largest desalination plant north of San Diego — a move aimed at relieving water shortages in the nation's most populated state.
Wednesday's decision came after a daylong debate over the merits of the $300 million Carlsbad project, which is expected to eventually produce 10 percent of San Diego County's water supply from ocean water.
Construction on the plant could begin next year and begin delivering drinking water in 2011, according to Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources Corp., which is heading the project.
"We're ecstatic," Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni told The Associated Press. "This is a monumental moment in what has been a 10-year process in bringing a desalination project to Carlsbad."
Carbon, wetlands mitigation
Commissioners gave the plant conditional approval in November. However, final approval hinged on the commission endorsing the company's plans to make the plant carbon neutral and to restore wetlands to make up for the marine life that would get drawn in and killed through the plant's intake system.
Commissioners approved both plans after lengthy debate, and Poseidon can now seek a state lease for the land.
Once complete, the plant will suck in 100 million gallons of sea water a day and produce enough drinking water for 300,000 people. The water will be filtered through reverse-osmosis to remove salt and impurities — with half the water being used by consumers and the rest returned to the ocean.
Pressure has been mounting to find new sources of clean water as a prolonged drought continues across the state and traditional sources of water are becoming more unreliable. More than a dozen other desalination plants are under consideration across the state.
Sierra Club opposes
The Carlsbad project has drawn ire from some opponents who fear the plant will damage the environment and raise people's water bills.
Mark Massara, director of Sierra Club's coastal programs, called the desalination project "a giant step backward" for Californians. He said the ocean water that will be diverted will kill millions of fish to pad Poseidon's profits.
"It allows the privatization of public trust water supplies for public profit and will ultimately make San Diego water ratepayers slaves to the most expensive fresh water ever produced in the United States," Massara said.
Local business and political leaders from San Diego converged on the meeting, urging commissioners to green light the project.
"Both mitigation plans submitted by Poseidon are good plans," Robert Simmon, a retired University of San Diego law professor, said at the meeting. "They're reasonable."
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