California Housing Laws Prompt Dueling Housing Lawsuits

California’s attempts at forcing its wealthy coastal cities to build more affordable housing spawned two lawsuits on Thursday, showcasing tensions around solving a crisis that has contributed to a surge in the homeless population in the nation’s most populous state.

Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Huntington Beach on Thursday morning, accusing the seaside city known for its surf culture and iconic pier of ignoring state laws requiring it to approve more affordable housing and to build more than 13,000 new homes over the next eight years.

State housing officials say California needs an additional 2.5 million homes by 2030 in order to keep up with demand. But the state currently builds about 125,000 houses each year, which leaves California well short of that goal. California has about 170,000 homeless people on any given night, accounting for nearly one-third of the nation’s unsheltered population, according to federal data.

Bonta’s lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, asks a judge to order the city to comply with the law and to impose a fine.

“This is the colossal challenge that California is confronting,” Bonta said. “The message we’re sending to the city of Huntington Beach is simple: Act in good faith, follow the law and do your part to increase the housing supply. If you don’t, our office will hold you accountable.”

Hours later, defiant city officials announced their own lawsuit, asking a federal judge to block the state from forcing them to build a wave of new homes they said would transform the suburban community into an urban one.

“I am committed to defend the city and its wonderful property owners who enjoy this quiet suburban beach town,” Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland said.

Huntington Beach, dubbed “Surf City USA,” has a largely suburban feel with residential neighborhoods of single-family homes flanked by busy main roads linked with strip malls and office buildings.

Last year, four new councilmembers won election with a politically conservative bent. Since taking office, the four-member council majority has taken on state housing mandates and limited the flying of flags on city property, including removing the LGBT rainbow flag that has flown in the city the past two years.

The dispute with the state centers on the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a process that requires cities to formulate a plan every eight years on how they will meet housing demands — demand that is set by the state.

California has told Huntington Beach it must built 13,368 new homes over the next eight years. The city is supposed to come up with a plan on how they will do that, and that plan that must be approved by the state.

The state punishes cities that don’t have state-approved housing plans by letting developers come in and build affordable apartment buildings without asking for local permission — a penalty known as the “builder’s remedy.” The Huntington Beach City Council is considering an ordinance at its next meeting that would exempt the city from this penalty, an ordinance state officials say is illegal.

A state law, passed in 2019, says a state judge can impose fines starting at $10,000 per month for cities that refuse to comply. The law also says the court can appoint someone “with all the powers necessary” to force the city into compliance.

This is the second time California officials have sued Huntington Beach for not following state housing laws. The city settled the first lawsuit back in 2020.

California’s housing and homelessness issues have worsened each year despite Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature spending billions of dollars in taxpayer money on the problem. Nearly all of that money has gone to local governments, which have their own housing and homelessness policies.

State leaders have repeatedly tried to shape those local policies through state laws and regulations.

Newsom, who won reelection in November and is seen as a potential presidential candidate one day, has aggressively challenged local governments to comply with state standards. Last year, he delayed $1 billion in homelessness funding for local governments because he said their plans to spend the money weren’t good enough.

Newsom later released the money after a closed-door meeting with local officials.

Click here to read the full article in AP News

Gov. Newsom Browbeating Huntington Beach Again for Housing Requirements, While Marin Remains Exempted

‘Build more housing or face very real consequences’

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Bonta are once again hectoring Huntington Beach in conservative Orange County over state affordable housing requirements.

What now?

The Voice of OC reported:

“The City of Huntington Beach continues to attempt to evade their responsibility to build housing, but they will simply not win,” Newsom said in a Tuesday press release.

“City leaders have a choice – build more housing or face very real consequences – including loss of state funds, substantial fines, and loss of local control.”

I am reminded when, as one of his first acts as governor, in 2019, Gov.  Newsom sued the Orange County city of Huntington Beach for failing to provide enough additional “affordable housing,” while his own home county of Marin enjoyed a moratorium on affordable housing building requirements until 2028, the Globe reported.

Newsom vowed that because “some cities are refusing to do their part to address this crisis and willfully stand in violation of California law,”Newsom said. “Those cities will be held to account.”

Only, left-leaning Marin won’t be held to account the way conservative Huntington Beach will.

VOC continued:

“The State’s housing laws in recent years have become incredibly onerous and burdensome to cities, including fully developed cities like Huntington Beach,” wrote Councilman Pat Burns, who called for the challenge.

“The City has a duty to protect the quality and lifestyle of the neighborhoods that current owners have already bought into.”

“Radical redevelopment in already-established residential neighborhoods is not only a threat to quality and lifestyle, but to the value of the adjacent and neighboring properties,” Burns wrote in his memo.

“Huntington Beach should not have its Charter City zoning rights provided for by the California Constitution trampled by the State.”

The Huntington Beach Council then voted 4-3 to direct City Attorney Michael Gates to challenge the housing state laws aimed at forcing local cities to allow granny flats, (Accessory Dwelling Units).

As we reported in 2019, the California Department of Housing and Community Development is the state agency charged with overseeing local governments’ housing plans. “Since 1969, California has required that all local governments (cities and counties) adequately plan to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community,” the agency says on its website.

Also on the website of the Housing agency are links to “Status and Copies of All Housing Elements.” Only, “all” cities are not included in the report, “Copies of all housing elements.”

Notably absent are cities in Marin County.

Huntington Beach is a charter city which has more local controls, exempting it from some state zoning laws, according to a panel of the California 4th District Court of Appeal. The appeals court ruled in 2017 that charter cities like Huntington Beach can approve plans that don’t meet the state’s housing requirements and can eliminate sites zoned for affordable housing. The state appealed the ruling.

The Department of Housing and Community Development reported in 2019 that most of California city’s housing plans are in compliance, while 51 cities and counties were not, including Huntington Beach… and Selma, Orange Cove, Holtville, Lake County, Bradbury, Claremont, La Puente, Maywood, Montebello, Paramount, Rolling Hills, South El Monte, Westlake Village, Atwater… while all Marin County cities were listed in compliance.

That report is no longer available on the housing department website.

In much smaller type The Department of Housing and Community Development also says:

“California’s Housing Element Law acknowledges that, in order for the private market to adequately address the housing needs and demand of Californians, local governments must adopt plans and regulatory systems that provide opportunities for (and do not unduly constrain) housing development. As a result, housing policy in California rests largely on the effective implementation of local general plans and, in particular, local housing elements.”

Huntington Beach has an extensive list of affordable housing on its website, as well as Affordable Ownership Housing.

recent report in the Marin Independent Journal updated the county’s issues with affordable housing requirements:

Marin County and its municipalities have been mandated by the state to allow more than 14,000 new residences by 2031, but less than half the housing will meet the county’s definition of affordable.

Marin supervisors raised the issue in July 2021 when they unsuccessfully appealed the county’s assignment to allow 3,569 new dwellings. Of that total, just 1,734, or 48.56%, are required to meet the affordability standard.

Neither Marin County nor Huntington Beach should not be forced to comply with the state’s one-size-fits-all housing mandates – even granny flats behind the main house. Cities and counties are much better suited to determine housing needs – and if they even want more housing built in their region. Water requirements, roads and bridges, are impacted, as are public schools, hospitals and medical facilities, and even grocery stores, and these are all issues the governor and legislators constantly badger cities and counties over.

Even “affordable” housing is very expensive in California, and that is because of state and local zoning and permitting, making it progressively harder to construct new housing. The median home price in California is approximately $800,000, more than double the national average of about $350,000. To even build apartments in California, unit costs are also as high as $800,000.

And California has beautiful weather, and many very desirable areas to live: the coast, the mountains, desert, and picturesque rural areas. Supply and demand are at work in California, but that’s not all.

“No amount of upzoning will make low- and very-low-income housing financially feasible to build without subsidies,” Matthew Lewis, a spokesman for California YIMBY, told the Marin Independent Journal. Lewis indicates that people who cannot afford to live in Marin County should be able to.

Yet, People make decisions every day where to live and work, usually based on what they can afford.

Click here to read the full article at the California Globe

As City-State Housing War Heats Up, One Rich California Enclave Gets a Pass

The guerrilla war between Gov. Gavin Newsom and some of California’s 482 cities over housing policy is heating up.

The state has imposed quotas on local governments to provide – on paper – enough land for much-needed housing, particularly projects for low- and moderate-income families, and streamline permits for projects.

While most are complying, albeit with some reluctance, others are trying to thwart the mandate. Resistance is strongest in small suburban cities dominated by wealthy residents who live in spacious homes on very large lots and don’t want dense condo or apartment projects to spoil the bucolic atmosphere of their neighborhoods.

That said, the sharpest conflict in California’s housing war pits a not-so-wealthy Orange County city, Huntington Beach, against the state. The city has basically declared it won’t meet the state’s demands, and Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta are suing to force compliance.

“The City of Huntington Beach continues to attempt to evade their responsibility to build housing, but they will simply not win,” Newsom said last week, just before Huntington Beach formally declared its rebellion. “City leaders have a choice – build more housing or face very real consequences – including loss of state funds, substantial fines, and loss of local control.”

“The city has a duty to protect the quality and lifestyle of the neighborhoods that current owners have already bought into and for the future sustainability of Huntington Beach,” City Councilman Pat Burns wrote in a letter to his colleagues prior to their action. “Radical redevelopment in already-established residential neighborhoods is not only a threat to quality and lifestyle, but to the value of the adjacent and neighboring properties.”

Afterwards, Newsom’s office tweeted, “Tonight, Huntington Beach leaders decided that their residents don’t need affordable housing. This is a pathetic pattern by politicians more focused on taking down pride flags than on real solutions. CA needs more housing. Time for Huntington Beach to start acting like it.”

It’s at least noteworthy that the affluent suburbs seeking ways around their quotas, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, are overwhelmingly Democratic in their political orientation while Huntington Beach is a Republican stronghold.

Interestingly, while the battle over land use and housing continues elsewhere, residents of arguably California’s most exclusive community don’t have to worry about multi-family housing projects spoiling their ambiance because of a quirk in the law.

That would be Montecito, home to celebrities galore, including Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres and, most recently, expatriate British Prince Harry and his wife, actress Meghan Markle.

Montecito lies next to the Santa Barbara but is not a city. Rather, it is an unincorporated community governed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

The county’s cities have their own quotas, but all of its unincorporated territory is folded into one quota of 5,664 units. The county’s plan, unveiled last month, identifies potential building sites, mostly near the cities of Santa Barbara and Santa Maria and the communities of Orcutt, Goleta, Isla Vista and Carpinteria.

Some of the sites are vacant while others are occupied, including some shopping centers and churches. None is in Montecito or an adjacent enclave called Summerland, even though the county’s inventory of vacant land includes about a dozen parcels, some of them fairly large, in those two communities.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Huntington Beach Leaders Say They’ll Challenge Housing Mandates

Huntington Beach officials say they are taking a stand for local control as they square off against state leaders in a dispute over housing goals for the coastal town.

On Tuesday, Feb. 14, Mayor Tony Strickland, Councilman Casey McKeon and City Attorney Micheal Gates told a crowd of residents and reporters gathered at City Hall they will contest state mandates requiring city leaders to plan for 13,000 more housing units over the next several years – it’s the city’s allocation in state housing plans to meet future needs. They also said they are on board with a proposed law before the Planning Commission this week that would to exempt Huntington Beach from the so-called builder’s remedy provision of the state’s Housing Accountability Act.

The provision requires local governments without approved housing elements – the plans cities have to submit for how they are zoning to meet their allocation – to accept projects submitted by developers so long as 20% of the homes are earmarked for low-income households or all of the homes are for moderate-income families. The submitted projects must still conform to appropriate building and design standards and comply with environmental impact rules and the California Coastal Act.

“This is a reckless, blank check for developers that if allowed to occur beyond the reach of local zoning controls, will create permanent, potentially disastrous, effects for the city,” McKeon said. “To be clear, these unregulated projects will become permanent fixtures in our city.”

He argued local control is needed to keep the city from becoming overly urbanized with high-rise buildings, saying meeting the mandated housing would double the size of the community.

“The city cannot sit idly by and allow developers to circumvent the local zoning controls and force the city to, in part, choose between environmental protection or housing – all the while, waiting for the state to approve the housing element that we are negotiating in good faith,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

But state officials are warning Huntington Beach’s plan to block the use of the builder’s remedy application would be a violation of state law.

“California is facing a housing crisis of epic proportions, and it’s going to take all of us doing our part to ensure that Californians have access to affordable housing,” state Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a letter to the city sent Monday, Feb. 13. “The city of Huntington Beach’s proposed ordinance attempts to unlawfully exempt the city from a state law that creates sorely needed additional housing for low- and moderate-income Californians.

“I urge cities to take seriously their obligations under state housing laws,” Bonta added. “If you don’t, we will hold you accountable.”

The California Department of Housing and Community Development sent a “notice of potential violation” to Huntington Beach officials last month, alerting them the proposed ordinance would likely violate state housing and permitting laws.

Gates, the city’s attorney, submitted the final version of the proposed ordinance, along with a legal memorandum, last week for the Planning Commission to review at its meeting this week, prompting another letter from HCD officials, along with Bonta’s letter, reiterating the agency’s position after reviewing the proposed language of the ordinance.

Both letters warn the city that adopting the proposed ordinance and restricting housing production under the builder’s remedy provision would violate the law.

“We’re not looking for a fight with the state,” but will protect the city’s local control, McKeon said.

Mayor Strickland emphasized the city, while it challenges the 13,000 home mandate, is still working on its housing plan and has 60 to 90 more days to finalize it.

But state approval of a city’s housing element doesn’t invalidate any builder’s remedy applications received during the window when a city is out of compliance. Huntington Beach officials said the city has not received any applications.

“Sacramento wants to urbanize Huntington Beach, and we’re going to fight it,” Strickland said, drawing cheers Tuesday from about a dozen residents dressed in patriotic-colored clothing. “That’s what our residents want us to do. We are not going to allow the governor to do to Huntington Beach what he did to San Francisco. We’re doing what the state is asking us to do, but we’re unleashing the city attorney to sue.”

The question over local vs. state control might require court intervention, Gates said. “We believe there is a question as to whether the state can make these demands.”

Gates said Huntington Beach is one of 121 charter cities and, as part of the California Constitution, he argued that it “supersedes state law.”

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

Will Huntington Beach Spill Trigger the End of Oil in California?

A recent San Diego Union-Tribune story asked the question that’s been on a lot of minds recently: After last month’s Huntington Beach spill, is oil in California at its end?

Given the state’s focus on the environment, the answer is likely a booming “Yes.”

Three years ago, Rep. Ro Khanna and Rep. Barbara Lee sent then-Gov. Jerry Brown a letter, asking him to end “the issuance of new permits for fossil fuel development and infrastructure” because doing so would “establish the standard for climate policy worldwide.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’d ​​made it clear he didn’t see a role for fracking in the state’s future and further declared that “California needs to move beyond oil.”

Then last month, Consumer Watchdog, responding to the Orange County spill, argued that it’s become “clear like never before that there is no such thing as safe proximity to oil drilling,” and insisted that “Newsom must stop issuing both offshore and onshore permits immediately.”

If California refuses to capitalize on its bounty of crude, it will have to increase its consumption of oil produced elsewhere, which will mean higher prices in the state that already has the most expensive gasoline and diesel in the country. The loss of a local supply will have no effect on local demand.

Only five other states have more proved crude reserves than California. But in-state production has dropped steadily after peaking about 40 years while it has soared in Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, and other oil-rich states. The keep-it-in-the-ground crowd, which has nearly unchallenged political clout in Sacramento, considers this a feature rather than a bug.

Seven of every 10 barrels of oil produced in California, and 3 percent of the nationwide total, is pulled out of Kern County. It is seventh among all top oil-producing counties in the country. Roughly 25,000 jobs in the county, many of them high-paying positions, are connected directly and indirectly to the oil-and-gas industry. The benefits of California oil, however, go far beyond Kern County.

Across the state, 50,000 work in the industry. While we think of crude primarily in terms of pumping gasoline, only two-thirds of petroleum consumption is used for transportation, and less than half is burned as motor fuel. Other uses important to the modern California lifestyle include the manufacture of telephones, movie film, cameras, solar panels, wind turbines, and a literal laundry list of everyday household and consumer items.

California will be happy to rely on other states and countries to provide the crude for these wares. It seems the mindset is that what happens outside the borders stays outside. The dirty mining in China and the Third World that’s needed to deliver raw materials used in renewable energy is unnoticed by most Californians, as does the explosion of coal plant construction in China and India.

Maybe most Californians expect that after 2035, demand for gasoline and diesel will fall sharply simply because Newsom issued an order banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles. It takes a certain degree of faith, though, to believe that the ban can realistically be implemented.

None of the above is intended to minimize oil spills. We all would rather the environment and wildlife remain unharmed. There is no way to provide energy without risk. Wind turbines probably chop up more than 1 million birds a year. Solar farms kill animals and destroy their natural surroundings. Both eat up enormous parcels of land, far more than natural gas power plants, and are creating waste disposal problems. They’re also risky because both provide energy only intermittently.

Yet oil is the chosen villain in California. It will be missed when it’s gone.

This article was originally published in the Pacific Research Institute

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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Public Nuisance Lawsuits Could Compound Cloudy California Economic Forecast

Government regulationToday, the sun is shining on the California economy, with unemployment at a record low. Our state is the fifth largest economy in the world with more billionaires than anywhere else in the country. State government is also doing well. Governor Brown inherited a $26 billion deficit upon entering office. Today, the state has a surplus of nearly $16 billion. This is good for businesses and good for the California families they support.

But there’s no guarantee those sunny days will last. In fact, many economists predict the dark clouds of recession in California’s future. Recessions are always particularly troubling for California because of our high reliance on wealthy taxpayers for revenue. Austerity could be on the way, as well as tough times for California businesses in a slower economy.

Another storm cloud looms on California’s horizon as well. California cities are increasingly considering filing so-called “public nuisance” lawsuits against manufacturers, alleging that manufacturers contribute to climate change and are at least partially responsible for sea level rise and wildfires. High-profile cases brought by San Francisco and Oakland have already been dismissed, as has a lawsuit brought by New York City. However, mayors and public officials in other California municipalities and in states like New York, Colorado, Rhode Island, Maryland and Washington continue to threaten manufacturers with lawsuits labeling them as public nuisances, seeking to both make political statements and score financial paydays.

California’s major cases aren’t out of the woods yet either. San Francisco and Oakland are appealing United States District Judge William Alsup’s dismissal of the case, with the cities’ opening brief due to the Ninth Circuit by December 10. Judge Alsup ruled, as did his counterpart in New York City’s case, that the problem of climate change is best addressed by the legislative and executive branches.

Fortunately, a number of California mayors are standing firm against these misguided lawsuits. Those include Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, who has publicly opposed climate litigation and noted that the courts are poor choices for handling climate policy decisions. Wagner has been joined by Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey, who warned in California Political Review that public nuisance lawsuits could eventually target municipal governments themselves and argued that working alongside manufacturers, not suing them, is the best way to achieve economic goals and job growth. La Habra Mayor Tim Shaw echoed this idea, stating that municipalities should refrain from filing frivolous climate lawsuits since mayors need to make it easier, not harder, for businesses to create more jobs.

These mayors and others, of course, have real reason for concern. California is hemorrhaging both people and businesses already. A November U.S. Census Bureau report says the Golden State has had 142,932 more residents exit to live in other states than people arriving from other states. This outflow is 11% higher than in 2015 and was second nationally only behind the New York and New Jersey area. Businesses are exiting too. Carl’s Jr., a longtime California icon, has relocated to Nashville. Toyota said goodbye to Torrance and will completely relocate its U.S. headquarters to Dallas in the coming weeks. Joining Toyota in Dallas is Jacobs Engineering Group, which is moving its $6.3 billion firm from Pasadena. Add to that growing list Nissan North America, Jamba Juice, Numira Biosciences, Chevron and Kubota Tractor and it’s easy to see why continuing to target manufacturers with lawsuits is a losing choice for the California economy.

Rather than running to the courthouse in pursuit of a failed legal strategy that will do nothing to help the environment, public officials should join with manufacturers in addressing the problem of climate change. This approach is already producing results. For example, Bloomberg reported last year that the five biggest energy manufacturers reduced their emissions by an average of 13% between 2010 and 2015, outpacing the U.S.’s 4.9% reduction over the same time span. Overall, manufacturers have reduced their emissions by 10% while increasing their overall value to the economy by 19% over the last decade. That progress is commendable.

Manufacturing is too critical to the California economy to continue threatening it. More than 10% of the state’s total economic output and about one in twelve workers depends on California’s $300 billion plus manufacturing sector. With businesses already fleeing high taxes and a less-than-welcoming business environment, the time is now to work toward productive solutions that both help the environment and protect manufacturing jobs. If California wants to avoid a gloomy economic future, local leaders must say no to public nuisance lawsuits that jeopardize manufacturers and the jobs they provide to hard-working Californians.

Whit Peterson is Director of Government Affairs, Greater Irvine Chamber

Public Nuisance Lawsuits Wrong Path for Cities

Sunset_at_Huntington_BeachFortunately, some public officials think municipal government and the courts shouldn’t be making environmental policy. That was the topic of discussion at a roundtable convened by the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project this summer. Held close to the one-year anniversary of the first public nuisance climate lawsuits popping up in California, the event featured local city mayors like me, as well as representatives from the California Manufacturers & Technology Association. Our message, public nuisance lawsuits are reckless and are economically dangerous for California.

There is no real foundation for these lawsuits at all. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously years ago that corporations cannot be sued over greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law. That’s just one of the reasons why Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a public nuisance lawsuit brought against energy manufacturers by San Francisco and Oakland. Like other judges before him, Judge Alsup stated clearly that trying to label energy companies as public nuisances isn’t going to work.

The truth is these cases don’t make sense from a legal point of view. They try to take matters best decided by elected officials and put them in the hands of judges. The reason? Climate activists have failed over and over to get their way, so they’re trying an end around. In the process, they’re filing lawsuits that could cost real jobs.

Manufacturing supports countless jobs in communities like Huntington Beach. When we endanger those manufacturers, we threaten jobs and growth. We also send the message that the very businesses who are on the right side of climate change, the manufacturers who have worked hard to lower their greenhouse emissions, should be punished instead of praised. I believe we should be cooperating with manufacturers to continue our progress, not suing them.

There’s no secret why lawyers like these lawsuits. Records show that Hagens Berman, the firm behind the San Francisco and Oakland public nuisance lawsuit, would have raked in 23.5 percent of the payout to those cities had Judge Alsup not thrown out the lawsuit. San Francisco and Oakland officials thought they could collect millions for their city budgets.

Huntington Beach has no plans to go down the public nuisance path. We understand the value of a healthy economy and of working alongside manufacturers to meet our goals. We also understand that public nuisance lawsuits could be aimed at anyone who uses fossil fuels, including a municipal government like ours.

We need to leave environmental policy to Congress. Cities across California shouldn’t be in the business of setting global climate policy. That’s not our job. Mayors and other local officials should focus on the work that keeps their communities growing and remain committed to fighting anything, including these lawsuits, that endangers the jobs of the people who elect them.

Mike Posey is the mayor of Huntington Beach

Assemblyman Travis Allen Wants Your Vote for California Governor

On the KTLA 5 News, Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen (R) lays out his campaign platform for California governor, including drought response and a plan to repeal Gov. Brown’s gas tax.

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