Water requirements for algae biofuels projects require careful consideration and planning.  Algae can grow in almost any type water, including fresh, salt, brackish, and industrial waste water.   Algae production facilities use ponds, tanks or tubes to grow the algae.  A project developer will want to consider the water resource or resources available for the project when determining the algae strain or strains that will be utilized.  Algae production systems, especially closed systems, may be able to recycle the water used in the production process.  

Water Supply.  Water supply for an algae biofuels project is crucial, as water is used in both the cultivation of algae as well as the processing of the algae oil into biodiesel.  When a project is located in a semi-dessert or desert environment, water may be scarce or severely limited.  Savvy project developers should give early and careful consideration to potential sources of water.  A few of the critical questions to ask include:

·                     Is there a source of water on the project site – a surface source (such as a river or canal), a municipal source, or a groundwater well?

·                     If there is no surface source on the site, is water available from an aquifer or from a local source?

·                     Of the water sources that are available is the water quality suitable for algae production?

·                     What water laws and restrictions will affect the ability to obtain water for the project?

·                     If a well or surface diversion is required to bring water to the project, what water rights or licenses are needed and how much time is needed to obtain those rights?

The chemical makeup of the water supply will determine what types of algae are able to be produced.  The water quality must meet certain algae growth criteria and state and federal criteria if any project wastewater is ultimately discharged to other waters or to publicly owned treatment works for disposal.  In some instances, project wastewater with minimal contaminants can be evaporated in adequate ponds.  Rural or remote project sites must consider the energy costs for pumping or transporting well or surface water or wastewater for treatment.

Water Discharge.  Any water discharge with the potential to affect surface or groundwater is required to be permitted.  In most states, federal Clean Water Act permitting authority is administered by state environmental agencies.  For water permits outside of federal jurisdiction, the permitting authority can range from the state environmental agency to a regional water quality control board.  Permitting requirements can extend to seepage ponds as well as land application (sprinkling) systems.  Discharge to dry wells or other receptacles that are deeper than they are wide potentially require separate permitting as underground injection wells.  When project wastewater discharge is to a surface impoundment or sprinkling system and that discharge has the potential to impact surface waters, then that discharge may have to be permitted as a surface water discharge.

If a project will discharge effluent (including stormwater) to surface water, a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit is typically required.  The NPDES permit will be issued either by the local permitting authority under a delegation agreement with EPA or directly by EPA if no delegation agreement exists (e.g., most Indian reservations).  The NPDES permit may fit within the terms of a general permit (such as for stormwater), in which case permit coverage can be assigned by request.  However, if the discharge is not within the terms of a general permit, an individual NPDES permit must be obtained.  In most jurisdictions, obtaining an individual NPDES permit is a lengthy undertaking.

An additional consideration for an algae biofuels facility is whether the facility will use genetically modified algae and therefore need to contend with even greater restrictions on discharge.  Genetically modified algae that enters the water system can impact the natural eco-system, and thus there is concern about containment of the genetically modified algae.  If a facility uses genetically modified algae, it is extremely important to review the local water laws and restrictions relating to genetically modified organisms.  Some states require permits before genetically modified algae can be susceptible to discharge.  In those states, pond systems may need to obtain permits prior to operation.  Discharge from closed systems to publicly owned treatment works may also require a permit.

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