Coastal Commission Staff Says Poseidon’s Ocean-To-Tap Water Plant Should Not Be Built

Commission vote next month could be make-or-break for the long-running, controversial project.

Poseidon Water’s long-running, controversial effort to turn the ocean off Huntington Beach into tap water for much of Orange County suffered a potentially fatal blow Monday, April 25 when staff for the California Coastal Commission released a report saying the project should not be built.

Citing a range of economic and social factors, including environmental damages from the proposed plant and the company’s track record for slow-walking environmental projects that would offset harm caused by its existing desalination plant in Carlsbad, the staff recommended that the commissioners vote against approving the project May 12 when they hold a public hearing in Costa Mesa.

“Due to this project’s fundamental inconsistencies with the Coastal Act … as well as its unclear but likely significant burdens on environmental justice communities, staff is recommending denial of the project.”

That recommendation still could be rejected.

With drought conditions now a new normal in California – and water supplies expected to grow tighter in coming decades – many view desalination as an expensive but necessary option to meet future needs. Also, many on the 12-member commission were appointed to their roles by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who favors the idea. And the $1.4 billion project – which would employ about 2,000 people during construction, though only a handful during its operating life – has bipartisan support from business and labor groups throughout the county and the state.

But if the commission agrees with staff and rejects Poseidon’s request to build a 50-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant in Huntington Beach, the company could be out of options. The commission is the last agency to review the deal and the upcoming public hearing is viewed as a make-or-break moment for a project first proposed in 1998. Company officials have said a no vote from the Coastal Commission would be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Late Monday, after the staff recommendation was made public, the company issued a statement indicating it will ask commissioners to ignore staff and approve its plan.

“We believe the Commission staff has erred in its recommendation. … California’s elected officials and regulators should consider the dire consequences that this recommendation will have for desalination in California.

“If this recommendation stands, it will effectively be the death knell for desalination in California.”

People who track the project believe that over the past two decades Poseidon has spent $100 million in research, planning, marketing and political contributions, among other things, to make the Huntington Beach plant a reality.

The negative recommendation from Coastal Commission staff, which was filed Jan. 6 with addendums written in recent days, isn’t a complete surprise. The commission was slated to vote on the Poseidon proposal in March, but the company asked for a delay after seeing a draft of the staff report.

Since then, other issues have come up that could kill the project, even if the Coastal Commission overrides staff and gives its blessing.

Last month, after years of public support for the Huntington Beach project, a top official at the Orange County Water District suggested his agency isn’t sure if it still backs the plan. Mike Markus, OCWD’s general manager, told a OC Forum gathering in Irvine that costs associated with storing and re-treating water produced by the Poseidon plant might prove a deal-breaker.

The Orange County Water District is, to date, the one agency known to be interested in buying desalinated water. In 2018, the agency signed a nonbinding deal to serve as the wholesaler for desalinated water, saying it would distribute Poseidon’s water to any of the 29 member agencies that want to buy it.

But that deal is contingent on Poseidon winning regulatory approval and the smaller water districts agreeing to be customers. In March, one of those agencies – the Irvine Ranch Water District, which would account for about 17% of the potential local customers for desalinated water – voted against the idea.

One key issue is how much residents would pay for desalinated water. Poseidon says the Huntington Beach plant would add $3 to $6 a month to a typical water bill once the project is online, probably later in this decade. But that estimate was last updated about 10 years ago and it’s unclear if it incorporates costs associated with distribution and other issues.

Another factor is environmental harm. Though the desalination projects in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad initially were envisioned to cause minimal new damage to the ocean because they would be built in areas already damaged by existing power plants, studies have shown the Huntington Beach project would kill microorganisms and significantly damage more than 400 acres of ocean environment.

As part of the negotiations over the proposal, the state has asked Poseidon to finance a range of environmental projects – from improving estuaries in Orange County to building a reef off the coast of Palos Verdes – to offset that damage. But the staff report noted that even a new set of projects proposed this month by Poseidon would take so many years to come to fruition that the Huntington Beach project would be a net loss for the environment.

Click here to read the full article at the OC Register

Scientists Criticize Coastal Commission Over Huntington Beach Desal Concerns

Huntington Beach DesalSACRAMENTO – The Coastal Commission’s stated concern that a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant’s intake pipes pose a threat to small and microscopic plankton has been rebutted in a letter from three prominent California marine biologists.

Anthony Koslow, Eric Miller and John McGowan — marine biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla — were responding to comments made at a Dec. 1 panel about ocean desalination in Ventura County by Tom Luster, the agency’s lead staffer on the desalination issue.

Luster actually had cited Koslow, Miller and McGowan’s research in arguing against open intakes given a 75 percent reduction in plankton off Southern California since the early 1970s. Citing the Scripps research Luster said it would be “hard to maintain and enhance marine life like the Coastal Act requires in a situation like this and so open intakes have a hurdle to overcome.”

In a sternly worded Dec. 29 rebuttal letter, Koslow, Miller and McGowan said Luster’s comment reflected “an inaccurate understanding of our research,” adding that their paper showed “many of the taxa are predominantly distributed offshore but share the same trend as more coastal taxa.”

“It is therefore not reasonable to attribute this decline to the impact of coastal development or nearshore power-plant intakes,” the scientists wrote. “We ask that you refrain from repeating your Ventura forum comments, or anything similar, as it presents an almost exactly opposite conclusion to that obtained by our research.”

The Scripps researchers’ conclusion was that large-scale ocean forcing, not local coastal processes, are behind changes off the Southern California coast since the 1970s. They added that they hoped their science could “inform regulatory decisions wherever applicable, but the science needs to be interpreted correctly.”

In an emailed response, Luster said his point was that the decline in plankton populations had made it difficult for the new proposed project, which he said “would represent an additional adverse effect to meet the Coastal Act’s requirement to maintain and enhance marine life productivity.” But Miller — one of the Scripps researchers — reiterated that their study, which found that environmental forcing had reached tipping points in 1976 and 1989, “did not detect an influence of power plant cooling water intakes on nearshore fish populations.”

“It’s a mystery to me how my quote was misinterpreted,” Luster said, in an interview.

The question at issue is no mere academic matter. The future of the Huntington Beach desalination plant isn’t just about one proposed facility, but about the statewide future of a technology that turns saltwater into drinking water. That’s a particularly important question as the state begins to emerge from a long-running drought. Decisions by the commission and other state agencies on the Huntington Beach plant will help decide whether developers pursue a number potential plants up and down California’s coastline.

A desalination plant went online last year in the north San Diego County city of Carlsbad, but the makeup of the Coastal Commission and state regulations have changed since the approval process for that facility. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the state water board “directed desalination plants to install wells — offshore or on the beach — or another type of subsurface intake that the state says would naturally filter out marine organisms.” However, the plant’s supporters point out that state laws require subsurface intake technologies to be technically, economically, socially and environmentally feasible.

According to Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni, the harm to plankton is minimal.

“There are estimated to be 115 billion larva in the source water of the desal plant,” he said. “Our estimated entrainment is 0.02 percent. Put another way, for every 10,000 fish eggs the desal plant is anticipated to entrain two. That means that 9,998 fish eggs are not at risk. This entire debate is over the potential loss of two out of 10,000 fish eggs in the desal plant’s source water, 99 percent of which die of natural mortality.”

The latest fracas over the Huntington Beach desalination plant bolsters Coastal Commission critics who believe the commission’s problems with the plan stem more from its hostility to growth than any real concerns about the fate of the food chain’s lowliest members.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at

Should desalination play a bigger role in California’s water future?

As reported by the Los Angeles Daily News:

When it comes to finding new sources of drinking water for residents of a coastal state mired in drought, some say desalination gets little respect in Sacramento.

“Desalination should be a priority,” said Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, who introduced a bill last week that would write first-time goals into the state water code for a percentage of drinking water originating from the ocean.

Chang, who once served on the Walnut Valley Water District board, said she was inspired by Singapore and Australia, which fought their way out of extreme droughts in part by building desalination plants. Following operation last year of the $1 billion Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego County, the Huntington Beach community is in the final stages of building a 50 million-gallon-per- day plant that may open by 2019, according to the website for Poseidon Water, project developer for both plants. …

Click here to read the full article

Giant O.C. Desalination Plant Nears Completion

The massive $1 billion Carlsbad desalination plant — the largest in North America — begins normal operations this month after a long legal and regulatory odyssey. The plant is expected to provide 54 million gallons of water a day, or about 7 percent of the county’s demand.

At an event held Monday at the oceanfront facility 30 miles north of San Diego, speakers praised the wisdom of the San Diego County Water Authority in teaming with project developer Poseidon Water in building the plant over the objections of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They said the desal plant should inspire construction of similar facilities across drought-plagued California.

Huntington Beach DesalBut Poseidon’s bid to build a $900 million desal plant in Huntington Beach shows that the drought hasn’t necessarily changed anything in terms of making the legal and regulatory obstacle course easier to navigate. As the OC Weekly points out, Poseidon has been trying to secure support and approval for the Orange County project for at least as long as it pursued the Carlsbad project, first proposing a design for a desal plant there in 1998.

How far have company officials gotten? An August story in the Orange County Register noted that there is not even established acceptance of the proposed location of the facility:

The push to look at other locations is reflective of a perception among anti-Poseidon activists that the company has foisted its project upon an unwitting public, that it’s proposing a plant no one asked for, and that the plant isn’t even needed in these times of conservation and water-use cutbacks. Recycling technologies are improving, they point out, and there’s talk of storing storm-water for later use as drinking water.

Poseidon has good reasons for locating its proposed plant near the AES power plant in Huntington Beach. There’s already an open ocean intake pipe at the location, a pipe used to bring in seawater to cool down the power plant.

Surfrider group: Orange County project ‘the worst offender’

While the California Coastal Commission ended up siding with Poseidon in approving the Carlsbad plant, it’s not clear if the commission is prepared to do the same with the Huntington Beach proposal. Environmentalists assert the desalination plant poses significant risks to offshore marine life in Orange County. The Surfrider Foundation’s Newport Beach chapter is leading the charge, calling the proposed project the most damaging yet proposed in California:

There are a number of desalination technologies, and if it is not done properly, the seawater intake process can unnecessarily kill marine life.  Desalination also produces a highly concentrated brine discharge that degrades water quality and marine life habitat if not properly diluted. …

There are numerous ocean desalination facilities being proposed in California, all in various stages of planning or permitting. Many of the proposed facilities have not been designed to minimize degradation to marine habitats and water quality, nor are the proposals being thoroughly evaluated by any government agency for their cumulative impacts statewide. The California State Water Resources Control Board is currently in the process of collecting scientific data on the adverse impacts of ocean desalination, and how best to minimize those impacts. But some proposals are moving forward without having adopted the recommendations of the science community – Poseidon’s project proposal is the worst offender.

Nevertheless, the project has bipartisan political support, and has begun to make the sort of process gains that Poseidon did with its Carlsbad proposal several years ago. The Los Angeles Times has details:

In May, the board of the Orange County Water District approved a non-binding term sheet with Poseidon to negotiate the price of water from the plant and to determine who would be responsible for various aspects of the project.

[Poseidon Vice President Scott] Maloni said he expects the Orange County district to negotiate a 50-year deal with Poseidon should the project be approved by the California Coastal Commission sometime in the spring.

A key part of the term sheet is that Poseidon must prove to the Orange County district that the Carlsbad plant can operate without a hitch for 90 consecutive days.

“We’re probably a year away from executing a final water purchase agreement [with the Orange County Water District],” Maloni said. “Carlsbad would be in operation for a good amount of time.”

Originally published by

New Desal Plant in the Works at Camp Pendleton

The dramatic announcement by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month of a 25 percent cut in water use across much of California triggered harsh commentary in the state and across the nation over the lack of preparation by government agencies and water districts for a long-term drought. A typical focus was incredulity over a dry coastal state’s failure to embrace desalination plants, as has been done in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other arid coastal nations.

But almost none of the coverage has reflected the fact that formal, official planning has been going on for years for one of the world’s largest desal plants along the coast of the Camp Pendleton Marine base in north San Diego County. Any construction is years off, but necessary preparatory work is well under way.

The image above of a proposed desal plant there comes from a 2010 presentation by the San Diego County Water Authority. It shows how sky-high water planners are on the potential of the 17-mile Camp Pendleton coast. Attention is now focused on a site in the southwest corner of the 125,000-acre base, just north of Oceanside and about 20 miles north of the Carlsbad desalination plant that is scheduled to open in coming months.

The Carlsbad plant will be the biggest in the Western Hemisphere and is expected to produce 50 million gallons of water a day — 7 percent of the San Diego region’s needed supply.

The Camp Pendleton project would be far bigger, with desalination experts saying 150 million gallons of water a day is realistic. That would make it one of the largest desal plants in the world.

A Saudi Arabian desalination plant will produce 264 million gallons a day when its first phase is complete, Bloomberg News reports.

A 2009 San Diego County Water Authority report didn’t take it for granted that the Pendleton project’s supplies are needed. It spoke of only expanding the project to the full 150 million gallons a day “as supply and demand conditions warranted.”

After four years of drought, there’s not much doubt that California needs far more reliable water sources — especially in the San Diego region, given that local water officials have spent 20-plus years fighting with the giant Metropolitan Water District over supply and costs.

The water mega-wholesaler has long opposed San Diego’s efforts to diversify its water supply by partnering with Poseidon, a private company, to build the Carlsbad plant and by striking a deal to shift Colorado River water from agricultural uses in Imperial County to supplies for homes and businesses in San Diego County.

Originally published by

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90 percent of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100M+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. Most of that water either evaporates, percolates or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers.

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25 percent reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4 percent of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25 percent reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

water-desalinationOne way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100 percent of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion.

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100 percent of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100 percent of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90 percent of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Could desalination solve California’s water problem?

From the Sacramento Bee:

CARLSBAD — Along this patch of the Pacific Ocean, welders and pipefitters nearly outnumber the surfers and sunbathers. Within sight of the crashing waves, the laborers are assembling what some hope will make water scarcity a thing of the past.

They are building the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will convert as much as 56 million gallons of seawater each day into drinking water for San Diego County residents. The project, with a price tag of $1 billion, is emerging from the sand like an industrial miracle. In California’s highly regulated coastal zone, it took nearly 15 years to move from concept to construction, surviving 14 legal challenges along the way.

The desalination plant is being built by Poseidon Water, a private company, and will be paid for in large part by rate increases on San Diego County water customers. On the surface, the plant resembles any other major construction project: Construction cranes scrape the sky as concrete foundations are poured; the giant new blocky building could be any warehouse or parts factory.

Inside, the truth of the project is revealed. …


Desalination vital to CA’s future water supply

As the California drought worsens by the week, we seem to overlook how long we’ve known this was coming — and how much time we’ve wasted failing to prepare.  We have had multiple warnings that the situation will escalate, including projections by experts at UC Davis that next year will be another drought year.  Yet, Sacramento continues to look at short-term solutions, including rationing, purchasing costly out-of-state water and levying possible penalties for overuse.  Governor Jerry Brown is placing Proposition 1 on the ballot in November to secure $7.5 billion in emergency funds, after already passing relief packages earlier this year.  

It’s stupefying how long the water playbook in California has relied upon the same potboiler: Ignore the problem until it’s too late to do anything but deploy costly emergency measures that have no long-term impact on our state water problems.

We need to take the idea of investment into longer-term solutions seriously, and commit to a tried-and-true, globally-used technology that could drastically change our state’s water issues: Desalination.  

A process that has gained popularity in the past decade, desalination takes ocean or partially-salinated water and uses a filtration system to remove salt via a process called osmosis, resulting in drinkable, fresh water.  Thousands of desalination plants have cropped up around the world since the early 2000s, in arid climates like the Middle East.  These plants have provided sustained, consistent sources of water to places that could not survive otherwise — a direction in which California is likely to be headed.

California has long considered desalination. In 2002, a state-funded exploratory group spent $50 million, determining that desalination is an environmentally safe, as well as effective, source of clean water that should be included in our state’s long-term water resources planning.   There are nearly a dozen existing or proposed plants up and down the coast, including a major project in Carlsbad that will offer 50 million gallons of water each day, enough for roughly 3 million people.  When it is completed in 2015, it will have a significant impact on an area that has been for decades dependent on other regions for its water supply.  

Yet, the Carlsbad plant almost did not happen, thanks to regulatory reviews that lasted over six years, and over a dozen lawsuits by environmental groups designed to prevent the plant from being built — all of which were successfully won by the plant’s developers.  The immediate benefits of the Carlsbad plant to the San Diego area will be obvious, from lower spending on outside water next year, to less pressure on agriculture and business as water costs, and availability, are more consistent. If residents of San Diego look back at the years of delays, and the high costs of water shortage, they have to wonder if the protestations were worth the losses.

The study by UC Davis projects that this year the California drought will cost at least $2.2 billion in economic losses (not to mention the high cost of buying and importing water).  There is no reason not to expect the same or greater losses next year, or in 2016, if the drought continues.  How much revenue will the state of California lose before those who argue against the high cost of desal technology admit it is worth it to prevent future losses?

Now that we can look at the costs of this year’s drought alone, and the price tag of the state’s emergency relief measures, the $1 billion price tag of the Carlsbad plant seems reasonable by comparison.  Many desal plants around the state come at a much lower cost.  Santa Barbara is in the process of improving a desal plant that was built, and then abandoned, several years ago, at a cost of roughly $20 million.  Monterey spent about $14 million on a similar project.  

These, and other smaller coastal projects, prove that communities can spend much less to ensure a secure water future.  So, why hasn’t the state considered helping fund the investment? The governor has now proposed or approved over $8 billion in emergency water spending in 2014.  Where would California be in two years if the state directed even a portion of that total toward developing proposed desalination plants?  Such an investment would guarantee fewer emergency funds will be needed in future years, as we would be better able to manage years with little rainfall.

Skeptics of desalination claim the high cost alone makes the technology a less-than-ideal option for the state.  Many argue that California should continue to rely on water recycling, a method currently used to treat wastewater, removing sewage and returning it to our water system. However, the use of desalination has proven to be tried-and-true around the globe, and the reliance on a diminishing supply of available drinking water through recycling has not prevented us from reaching this critical point.  Our lakes and rivers have dried up; our underground aquifers are heading toward the same fate.  Desalination is likely the only rational and economically sound solution for California.

Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and philanthropist.