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

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