Court Revives Desalination Plant

A state appeals court revived a controversial plan to build a desalination plant on San Francisco Bay in Marin County Wednesday.

The First District Court of Appeals found the environmental impact report for the project was adequate, overturning a lower court judge’s finding that the EIR failed to adequately review adverse consequences.

The ruling stands as a major defeat for environmental groups that opposed the project, though they may still appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

The appeals panel gave a green light to the review despite environmentalists concerns over the EIR’s responses to seismic safety; potential harm to fish spawning, chlorine pollution in the bay from routine pipe cleaning, increased development, damage to bay views and greenhouse gas increases.

The opinion rejects assertions that driving 175 concrete pilings into the bay during construction would result in acoustic pressure waves underwater that could be lethal to young salmon, steelhead and green sturgeon.

Justice Timothy A. Reardon said the EIR proposed steps to avoid killing protected species and to mitigate noise impacts on birds.  That promise “constitutes adequate mitigation under [the California Environmental Quality Act].”


The Marin Municipal Water District proposed a 5 million gallon-a-day desalination plant in 2003 to address growing demands on the district’s water supply from reservoirs.

The plant would extract raw seawater from San Rafael Bay, 15 miles north of San Francisco.

The reverse osmosis process produces drinkable water and the remaining salt brine would be discharged back into the bay.

The discharged brine would be blended with Marin Sanitary Agency treated sewage and industrial wastewater generated in MarinCounty.  Blending the brine and treated wastewater would reduce the concentration of salt returned to the bay, according to the court.


The plan was opposed by a number of groups, including the North Coast Rivers Alliance.

In 2008, the district released a final EIR that found the plant could meet objectives of providing more water while avoiding its impacts.

In 2009, after two public hearings, the Board of Supervisors approved the EIR and the project.

The Alliance sued and a state judge found the EIR inadequate on a number of fronts.  That decision was overturned Wednesday by the appeals court.

Reardon also found the EIR adequately addressed aesthetic impact of three water storage tanks atop two rural ridges overlooking the bay.  The tanks would each be 20-feet tall and 120-feet in diameter.

He also found the report dealt adequately with the impact of “shock-chlorination” used in wastewater disposal.  In addition, to keep barnacles and mussels from blocking the water intake system it would be periodically disinfected with 150 gallons of bleach and this too was addressed in the EIR by promising use of valves to prevent bleach entering the bay.

The study also reported sampling of larval fish and eggs from 2005 to 2006 showed Pacific herring, northern anchovy and yellowfin goby, but no Chinook salmon, steelhead or sturgeon.

The EIR noted entrapment of those protected species was unlikely because they spawn upstream in freshwater.

In addition, Reardon said the EIR showed the greenhouse gas emissions from plant energy use, which contribute to global warming, would not slow Marin’s goal of reducing its greenhouse gas by 15 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

Joining Reardon in the in the decision were Justices Ignazio J. Ruvolo and Maria P. Rivera.

Case:  North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Marin Muni Water Dist., No. A133821