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A salty dispute: California Coastal Commission weighs fate of desalination plant

This article appeared in CalMatters

BY RACHEL BECKER

MAY 12, 2022

Incoming sea water pipes at the Poseidon Water desalination plant in Carlsbad on June 22, 2021. The California Costal Commission is set to consider final approval for a desalination plan in Huntington Beach. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In summary

The commission, in a marathon session today, will decide on a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach that’s been debated for more than 20 years. Staff has advised the commission to reject it.

 

 

As drought continues to squeeze California’s water supplies, the Coastal Commission today is deciding the fate of a proposed desalination plant that has been debated for more than 20 years.

The decision about the $1.4-billion plant in Huntington Beach is pivotal because it could steer the future of turning seawater into drinking water in California, buffering its vulnerable water supply against drought. 

The Coastal Commission staff has advised the commission to deny approval — citing, among other factors, the high cost of the water and lack of local demand for it, the risks to marine life and the possibility of flooding in the area as sea levels rise. 

“Desalination is likely to play an important role in addressing the state’s water crisis,” said Kate Huckelbridge, a Coastal Commission deputy director. But, she said, facilities should be designed and located to fill a specific need “in a manner that avoids and minimizes impacts to coastal resources.”

“Fundamentally, staff does not believe Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach project facility achieves this objective,” she said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has voiced his support of desalination, telling the the Bay Area News Group Editorial Board at the end of April: “We are as dumb as we want to be. What more evidence do you need that you need to have more tools in the tool kit than what we’ve experienced? Seven out of the last 10 years have been severe drought.”

Poseidon Water, the developer, pushed back against criticism, invoking the governor’s support and approvals from other state agencies. 

“The project has undergone 20 years of environmental planning. It’s certainly the most extensively studied desal facility in the state, if not the world, and it has been approved by multiple agencies including the State Lands Commission, including the Regional Water Quality Control Board,” said DJ Moore of the law firm Latham & Watkins, speaking on behalf of Poseidon. 

“Desalination provides a drought-proof local supply that the state recognizes is important to combat climate change,” he said.

Every day, the plant would suck in nearly 107 million gallons of seawater and spit out 50 million gallons of drinkable water, enough to supply nearly 460,000 people in Orange County, which is home to about 3.2 million people.

Commissioners met today in a packed Costa Mesa conference room, just miles from the site, which is home to a power plant, where the project would be built. Some attendees held hand painted signs proclaiming “Say No to Poseidon.” The sign of another attendee, wearing an inflatable green hat, declared “I am a plankton, please do not kill me!” 

The debate is likely to stretch until late at night because more than 200 people have lined up to comment on the project. “It’s going to be a long day,” Commission Chair Donne Brownsey warned. “So everybody, just hope you brought snacks.”

Brownsey opened the meeting with a rebuke of Poseidon: The company had released a document on Coastal Commission letterhead resembling the commission’s own staff report. But instead of staff’s recommendation to deny the project, Poseidon’s version recommended approval.  

“This was not a good decision by the applicant to put it on Coastal Commission letterhead, because it did cause some confusion among members of the public and the press,” Brownsey said. “We have not seen this before. We hope this is the last time we see it.”

Moore later apologized “if the alternative staff report we submitted caused any confusion … Our intent was only to show the commission the findings that could support a project approval.” 

Brownsey shushed the audience’s laughter, and issued a reminder about decorum — one of many such admonitions to a restive audience. 

The Huntington Beach facility wouldn’t be the first desalination plant constructed in California. Poseidon also developed one in Carlsbad that supplies water to San Diego County. Other plants clean up brackish groundwater stores, pumping the salty mixture that remains down the Inland Empire Brine Line to a treatment plant in Orange County. 

The approval process for the Huntington Beach plant, though, has been especially drawn out and contentious. “There are still many key details about the project that are not developed, which has made it incredibly difficult to review,” Huckelbridge said. 

“It’s certainly the most extensively studied desal facility in the state, if not the world.”

DJ Moore, Latham & Watkins, speaking on behalf of Poseidon Water

The staff report points to San Diego County water costs from the Carlsbad plant that have tripled since Poseidon’s early estimates. 

It’s unclear, however, whose water bills might be affected by the Huntington Beach project, because “Poseidon has not yet secured a buyer for the water and does not know where its water would be delivered,” the staff report said. 

Though Orange County Water District signed a non-binding term sheet with the company, “any eventual purchase is contingent on Poseidon being able to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies from Metropolitan Water District and that Poseidon provide specific expected costs for its water, among other things. (Orange County Water District) also had not identified an immediate need for much of the water…” the staff report said. 

The Orange County Water District did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Staff also sounded the alarm about the millions of gallons of larval fish that would be sucked into the plant, and the millions of other marine creatures killed by the water pumped back into the ocean. 

“The project would kill marine life in about 275 million gallons of seawater per day, which is about 100 billion gallons of seawater each year,” said Tom Luster, an environmental scientist with the commission. “If this type and scale of impact were to happen on land, it would be highly visible and alarming.” 

Though staff described many of these concerns in 2013, Huckelbridge said “Poseidon has not been willing to offer more than a cursory description” of how it would reduce those ecological impacts. Staff said construction of projects to offset the impacts of the Carlsbad facility, which opened in 2015, still have not begun. 

“Poseidon has not yet secured a buyer for the water and does not know where its water would be delivered.”

california Coastal Commission staff report

Poseidon’s representatives pushed back on the staff’s concerns point-by-point, emphasizing the need for desalination in a drought-prone state. 

They cited building plans intended to reduce threats to the facility and its pipes, including from earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels. And they contested staff’s criticism of their environmental restoration efforts, saying they propose to restore about 150 acres of degraded wetlands in Long Beach, among other projects.

Moore said the water could buffer the effects of drought on lower-income communities. 

“History shows that disadvantaged communities are affected worse by drought, both with lower water allocations and with greater cost impacts from penalties,” he said.

“The local community supports desal in Huntington Beach,” said Latham & Watkins’ Jennifer Roy, speaking on behalf of Poseidon, about an hour and 45 minutes into the hearing. 

The audience responded with a loud “no, no!”

“Excuse me, I’m not going to caution again,” Brownsey said. “Please, do not disrupt the hearing.”

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