Marin water officials can resume planning to build an energy-hungry facility that would convert seawater into drinking water near San Rafael’s shoreline, but construction can't begin without voter approval, voters decided.
Marin County voters weighed in on the 21-year-old proposal Tuesday, with ballot results clearing the path for continued planning efforts. The district announced in April that it was suspending such preparations due to low water demand.
The facility — a desalination plant — could eventually produce up to 15 million gallons of fresh water every day for the water district's customers, which currently include businesses and 195,000 people spread across 10 towns and unincorporated parts of Marin.
The plant would suck salt water out of San Rafael Bay, filter it to remove sediment and other impurities and then force it through superfine filters to remove salt in a process called reverse osmosis. Then the fresh water would be treated and sold to customers.
Removed salt would be dumped back into the bay, and other impurities would be shipped to a landfill.
The project could provide water in times of drought, but it’s been criticized because it would be expensive and energy-intensive and could fuel population growth and large development projects.
In drought conditions, the plant would consume 77 million kilowatt hours of power annually, but it would normally consume 10 million kilowatt hours per year, environmental analysis shows.
By comparison, Marin County uses roughly 1,421 million kilowatt hours annually, which is one-third the average for California counties.
County voters were presented this election with two desalination-related ballot measures, both of which — if passed — would have ordered district officials to secure voter approval before spending money on certain aspects of the project.
Measure T, which would have required voter approval for spending on planning or construction efforts, received roughly 61 percent of the vote.
That result would ordinarily have stalled or dramatically slowed down the project, which is expected to cost $100 million to build.
But Measure T was trumped by Measure S, a dueling initiative that secured roughly 69 percent voter approval.
Measure S requires district officials to get voter approval before proceeding with construction efforts. It does not demand that they secure voter approval before spending money on project planning, including the refinement of cost estimates.
The Measure S ballot language states: “If this measure receives a greater number of affirmative votes than the competing measure (Measure T), the provisions of this measure shall prevail in their entirety, and the competing measure shall be null and void.”
Because Measure S secured more votes than Measure T, district officials are free to continue spending money on planning efforts without seeking voter approval.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin), a supporter of Measure S, said he was pleased with the result. He was a member of the district's board when it began investigating the possibility of building a desalination plant.
“Nobody wants to build a desalination plant,” Huffman said. “It’s a very expensive proposition and if you don’t need it, you’re sure as heck not going to go out and pay all that money to build one.”
But Huffman said it's important to continue investigating the possibility of building a desalination plant to keep "options open for the future."
One of the towns that buys water from the district is Fairfax.
Fairfax Mayor Lew Tremaine, a Measure T supporter, said he was disappointed that Measure S received more votes, because it will allow district staff to continue planning a “boondoggle” that would make more water available for undesirable development projects.
“I think what the water district board needs to take away from the fact that both measures had a majority vote is that voters of Marin really don’t want the desalination plant,” Tremaine said.