Desalination could help quench arid states, attorney tells AGs

Chris Rizo Aug. 7, 2009, 12:00am

Frederick Lowther

Catherine Cortez Masto (D)

(Legal Newsline)-The West's water shortage would all but dry up if developers were able to build plants to covert ocean water into drinking water without having to spend millions of dollars in fees and waiting years for regulatory approval, a leading energy attorney said.

The process of desalination, which is widely used in the Middle East, could economically generate millions of gallons of drinking water a day in coastal states without significant harm to the environment, said attorney Frederick Lowther.

"We are blessed with an abundant resource -- 75 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water, so we don't have to look hard or deep," said Lowther, who sits on the board of Poseidon Water LLC, a water project development company. "But we still have the issue of how to make an obviously abundant resource drinkable and available on an economically- and environmentally-sound basis."

Lowther, a partner at the Washington law firm of Dickstein Shapiro LLP, said desalination technology, which converts seawater into drinking water by removing salt and other impurities by reverse osmosis, offers "a very real solution" to some of the nation's water woes.

He said if populous coastal states, including California and Florida, got more of their drinking water supplies from desalination there would be more fresh water supplies for inland states, which are often stage to water allocation disputes.

"It's a solution which is now economical and available," he said of desalination, noting that a regulatory morass prevents developers from seeking plants in more jurisdictions.

"The principle impediment to introducing desalination ... is not the economics. It's the legal, regulatory process that stands in the way," Lowther said in his address this week to the Conference of Western Attorneys General in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Globally, there are about 13,000 desalination plants, producing 12.5 million acre-feet of potable water per year. Forty-seven percent of the facilities are in the Middle East. In the United States, there are about 1,000 desalination plants, producing 1.7 million acre feet of water each year.

On Thursday, a San Diego Superior Court preliminarily upheld a state commission's approval of Poseidon's desalination plant proposed for Carlsbad, Calif., tossing out a lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper.

The groups said California's State Lands Commission should not have approved the plant because of potential harm to marine life.

The $520 million project, which took more than six years to approve, could produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day when it goes online in 2011. That is about 10 percent of San Diego's supply.

Plants like the Carlsbad one use a fine mesh barrier at its water intakes to minimize harm to ocean life -- a major concern of environmentalists.

"There is ample justification for streamlining the process of approval of desalination plants and not subjecting them to (regulatory scrutiny) more appropriately reserved for activities which result in primary environmental impacts," Lowther said. "Not only are the environmental impacts indirect ... the principle benefit -- producing drinking water from the ocean -- is an environmental- and a social-plus."

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said the scarcity of water in parts of the nation could indeed be alleviated by desalination.

"As we all know, water shortages are being experienced throughout the United States, particularly in the West," the Democratic AG said. "This is something that the Western states have been looking at to address the issue of our water shortages."

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