Cambria desalination plan dealt a blow

An Army Corps of Engineers’ project to test the soil and sample water near the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek is not consistent with the state’s rules and goals for the habitat and coastline there, the California Coastal Commission ruled during a hearing Dec. 9.

Whether that unanimous decision will be a death knell for the proposed tests there — and ultimately for intake and outfall facilities for a Cambria Community Services District desalination plant — is yet to be determined.

Such a plant would be located elsewhere, off the beach.

Tom Luster, the commission’s staff environmental scientist, said late Tuesday that the Corps could accept the commission’s decision and focus on another location or project to meet Cambria’s water needs. Or, the Corps could notify the commission that testing will proceed anyway. If that happens, Luster said, the commission could request mediation or file a lawsuit to stop the work.

Josephine Axt, chief of planning for the Corps’ Los Angeles division, said that while pursuing the testing regime further isn’t totally off the table, “it’s unlikely at this point.”

“Going over the head of the Coastal Commission would be a huge deal,” Axt said.

A decision to do that would have to be made at the regional and national level, she said, not just at the Los Angeles division.

Consistency hearings, like the one held last week, take place when a federal agency’s plans trump state law but still must comply with the state’s requirements “to the maximum extent practicable.”

The Corps has tried for about three years to get approval from the commission, State Parks and the State Lands Commission to perform scientific tests along the state natural preserve and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The tests would help discover whether a desalination intake system could draw enough salty water from under the ocean floor to supply the plant.

While the tests could have provided important data about the site, Axt said, they were a tiny part of the larger picture. The plant would be expected to provide a drought-proof supplemental source of water for a community that occasionally runs dry.

Corps and district staffers have been working on dual federal and state environmental impact studies for the plant. Those reports and a subsequent public scoping meeting likely will be where the Corps will dedicate its energies and money for the next six months, Axt surmised.

People who objected to the testing proposal, six of whom testified at last week’s hearing in San Francisco and most of whom have spoken out regularly against Cambria’s desalination plans, told the commission the tests could endanger the dynamic, rapidly changing beach’s fragile ecology, limit public access to popular recreation areas, risk spills of potentially toxic materials and harm threatened and endangered species.

The commissioners agreed. Their decision mirrors their denial issued in September 2007 of a similar test project near the mouth of San Simeon Creek. Last year, commissioners approved with conditions a previous testing plan for Santa Rosa Creek, but State Parks wouldn’t allow the Corps to bring heavy machinery into the state natural preserve.

Richard Hawley, executive director of Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust, said Monday that the district’s strategy of partnering with the Corps and “placing all their water cards on a geotech project has failed completely and for good reason. The site has too many overlays of protection, as many in the community have been telling the CCSD for three years. And the state of California agrees.”