California’s State Water Board Issues New Coastal Power Plant Cooling Water Policy

On May 4, 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (“Board”) approved the Water Quality Control Policy (“Policy”) to implement a provision of the federal Clean Water Act aimed at coastal and estuarine power plants’ cooling water intakes. The Policy implements Clean Water Act § 316(b). Section 316(b) requires cooling water intake structures to have the best technology available (BTA) to minimize adverse environmental impacts. According to the Board, California’s coastal and estuarine power plants using the once through cooling approach draw 15 billion gallons of water per day. The Board claims once through cooling annually kills 2.6 million fish and over 19 billion fish larvae. The Board adopted the Policy “to minimize” these biological impacts.

To implement the Policy, the Board lays out these general provisions: use of Best Professional Judgment to determine BTA on a statewide basis; alternative means of compliance for fossil- and nuclear-fueled plants; a staggered implementation schedule to reduce impacts on electricity production; and monitoring.

Specifically, the Policy offers two compliance alternatives for existing power plants. One alternative, “Track 1”, sets an acceptable intake water flow-rate velocity of no more than 0.5 feet/second. The Policy suggests that closed cycle, dry cooling systems would meet this standard. To qualify for the second alternative, “Track 2”, a power plant owner or operator must first show the Board that compliance with Track 1 is not feasible. “Not feasible” is defined as a task that cannot be accomplished because of lack of space or an inability to get the necessary permits; cost is not a factor. If the Board grants permission to a utility to pursue Track 2, the power plant “must reduce impingement [trapping] mortality and entrainment [sucking in] of marine life by the facility, on a unit-by-unit basis, to a comparable level to that which would be achieved under Track 1, using operational or structural controls, or both.” Track 2 then outlines two means by which compliance for impingement mortality will be measured, and two other means by which compliance for entrainment will be measured. The Policy also sets forth Track 2 monitoring requirements for impingement and entrainment impacts. Power plant operators or owners pursuing Track 2 must submit monitoring plans meeting these requirements.

Compliance dates for coastal and estuarine power plants are outlined in a schedule included in the Policy. However, the Policy also offers conditions under which covered power plant operators can obtain a suspension of the compliance deadline applicable to their plants. Nonetheless, all power plants must adhere immediately to a set of interim requirements established by the Policy.

In short, the Board’s new Policy will affect all of California’s coastal and estuarine power plants using once through cooling and require a demonstration of timely compliance with either Track 1 or 2.