Cambria desal plans advance

An Army Corps of Engineers proposal to do tests needed for desalination plant planning in Cambria got a boost with a staff recommendation that the state Coastal Commission go along with the plan.

The report, however, says that approval should be given if two conditions are added, which are intended to minimize the effects test wells have on wildlife habitat, recreational use and water contamination.

The commission is expected to rule at its meeting in Santa Cruz on Thursday on whether the Army Corps plan is as consistent as possible with the state’s coastal regulations.

Installation and removal of wells on the beach near Shamel Park in Cambria should be done only during September and October to minimize impacts on birds, fish and other wildlife, as well as recreational use, and subsurface water should be tested for more than 100 contaminants — including mercury — before it’s allowed to be discharged, the 29-page staff report states.

With those conditions added, staff believes “the project would be consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the California Coastal Management Program.”

The Corps and the Cambria Community Services District said that, as a federally funded project, the testing is not subject to county and state permits.

The geotechnical and hydrogeologic test project is intended to determine whether enough seawater can be drawn from under the sand to supply a planned desalination plant. The actual plant would be located away from the beach — possibly miles away — and subject to its own permitting process.

The testing would involve the initial drilling of up to 10 test holes along the beach; up to three would be converted to test wells. There would also be two monitoring wells near each test well, for a total of up to 16 holes on the beach.

Installation of the wells would put at least three vehicles on the beach, the report reads: a drill rig about 41 feet long weighing from 17 to 26 tons; a 40-foot pipe trailer weighing about 19 tons; and a pickup truck. Wellheads would be at least 3 feet under the sand when installation is complete.

Test and monitoring wells would be removed about 14 months after installation, according to the plan. Installation and removal are expected to take a total of four to six weeks.

If commissioners follow staff recommendations, it could bring to a close a pitched battle that has raged over the testing regime since the services district first proposed the concept more than five years ago for a site near the mouth of San Simeon Creek.

After the commission rebuffed that request in December 2007, saying the district had not shown that the proposed location was the only option available, the district moved to study the area just south of the Santa Rosa Creek mouth.

The district had been preparing its own environmental documents on the testing for desalination plant supply sources, but on April 22, directors abandoned that course after legal advisers said the Corps controls the geotech project and is responsible for the permitting. Project opponents say the district’s move relinquishes local control and is intended to circumvent state laws.

Greg Sanders, president of the district’s board, said, “If the commission finds that the project is consistent, then the Corps can proceed. There are no further hoops to jump through.”