California's Water Board Shouldn't Gut the Once-Through Cooling Policy Before it Has a Chance to Work

The California State Water Board is considering a major and poorly analyzed Amendment that will dramatically weaken the Board’s recently adopted Policy to phase-out the harmful and antiquated technology of once-through cooling in coastal power plants in California. As my colleague Leila Monroe blogged, this post-World War II technology, uses sea water to cool power plants.  Once-through cooling has tremendous harmful impacts on California’s coastal and marine environment.  Every day, 19 power plants on our coast suck in more than 15 billion gallons of sea water, killing nearly all the marine life that water contains.

The Policy, adopted in May 2010 after five years of review, would start to bring California coastal power plants into compliance with the Clean Water Act (40 years after its passage), by setting a moderate timeline for phasing out once-through cooling over the next 14 years (or requiring comparable reductions in ocean impacts).

The Policy was developed in close consultation with the state energy agencies, and in their September, 2009 comment letter those agencies showed support for the approach ultimately adopted by the Water Board. In order to ensure the phase out won’t have unintended consequences on the state energy supply, the State Board’s Policy also established a process for accepting ongoing advice from state energy agencies, in case any further delays or changes are found to be necessary.

Only weeks after the ink was dry on the finalized Policy, the State Water Board has now proposed an Amendment that would gut the new Policy and allow power plant owners to set their own timeline for compliance. In the meantime, power plant owners could comply through payment of a mitigation fee that courts have already determined to be illegal.

Why?  There is no new information to suggest that the new Policy won’t work. In fact, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), one owner of coastal power plants, released a draft energy resource plan this past summer, noting the numerous reasons for needing to retire or replace several of the existing outdated coastal generators, including reliability, air quality and increasing maintenance costs.  Compliance with the Policy is possible without retirement or replacement of the coastal plants, but amending the Policy to “save” power plants that need to be replaced anyhow doesn’t make much sense.

Under the Policy (which has not even been given opportunity to be implemented), plant owners are required to submit implementation plans early next year.  Without having seen the implementation plans, the Water Board has no reason to think California energy supply – including the ramp-up of renewable energy -- will be at risk, or that power plant operators have any legitimate reason for needing more time to comply with the Policy.

Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which after many years of delay is finally developing a rule to address once-through cooling, has recommended the Water Board reject the proposed amendments.  The amendment was not accompanied by any additional environmental review or any review of electricity supply constraints. Indeed, no meaningful rationale was provided whatsoever.

The State Water Board should reject the proposed Amendment, and give the new Policy an opportunity to work, rather than undermine the Policy and forgo responsibility to protect California oceans. After five years of study by the State Water Board, we know California has a workable Policy to phase out once-through cooling. California’s coastal ecosystem will be better off and we can still meet our energy needs.

On November 19, NRDC joined 21 other groups in submitting a very detailed letter, which describes the many legal, policy and scientific reasons the once-through cooling Policy Amendment should be rejected at the State Water Board’s hearing on December 14th, 2010.  The meeting is open to the public: come tell the Water Board to reject the Amendment.