Moving ahead with desalination was the right step

IT IS IRONIC to hear people criticizing the Marin Municipal Water District for "rushing" toward building a desalination plant.

Marin Independent Journal

IT IS IRONIC to hear people criticizing the Marin Municipal Water District for “rushing” toward building a desalination plant.

District leaders have been weighing the costs and benefits of desalination for many years. In 2002, the board voted 3-2 to start exploring a desalination plant as part of its strategy to meet MMWD’s long-term water needs.

Another irony is that the majority in that vote were the directors with the closest ties to Marin’s environmental community. One them was Jared Huffman, now our assemblyman. He pushed desalination as the district’s only viable source for new water.

Since that vote, there have been studies, tests, endless hours of debate and much hemming and hawing by district leaders.

In 2005, a $1.2 million pilot plant was built near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The plant demonstrated that the district could turn bay water into clean, drinkable water.

Last week, MMWD’s board voted 4-0 to take another step toward building a desalination plant. The vote not only was an important milestone, it was the right thing to do. The board also showed political courage in the face of vocal opposition when it voted to accept an environmental impact report on the proposed plant.

Opponents were outspoken at last week’s meeting, urging the board to reject the report and kill the plant. Critics, including some of Marin’s environmental leadership, contend that the district can meet its future needs through conservation.

The board is skeptical of a conservation-only strategy. So are we.

This also was not the final decision on building a desalination plant that has an estimated construction price tag of $105 million. There will be more votes and more opportunities to debate the pros and cons of a desalination plant.

A district-commissioned poll showed that 58 percent of voters surveyed generally support building a desalination plant. That level of support certainly made the board’s decision easier.

Critics of desalination challenge the district long-held stance that MMWD cannot meet its water-supply needs through conservation, let alone weather a prolonged drought.

Some former critics of desalination now support moving forward, among them MMWD chairman Larry Russell, who when he was elected in 2004 ran on a platform that maintained that conservation could meet the district’s long-term water needs.

MMWD has been promoting conservation for years and has achieved impressive savings. Can the district and users do more? Certainly. But even aggressive conservation measures will not be enough to guarantee a dependable long-term water supply, especially if there is a long drought.

In 2005, when MMWD launched its test plant, Huffman said: “MMWD is taking an important step toward a future in which Marin residents will be protected against major economic and environmental hardships during droughts.”

Marin needs to do everything it can to make sure it doesn’t run out of water. The vote to keep pursuing desalination is an indication of how seriously the board takes that obligation.

We support the board’s decision to move forward and appreciate its open and methodical approach. To abandon desalination at this stage and bank on questionable promises of a conservation-only strategy would be a serious mistake.

View this article online from the Marin Independent Journal.

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