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3 environmental groups take 3 positions on Poseidon Water desalination plant

Among attributes of the controversial Poseidon desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach is the $1.5 million or so it would spend annually to keep the tidal inlet open at the Bolsa Chica wetlands, five miles up the coast from the project site.

But as much as the money is needed there, the three non-profit groups dedicated to the wetlands’ preservation clash when it comes to support for the desalter plant.

The state spent $151 million to create the inlet in 2006, restoring the estuary’s interaction with the ocean and revitalizing the wildlife habitat. The work has been a particular boon to the population and variety of birds.

But the inlet gets clogged up with sand and needs regular dredging, leaving officials to scramble for funding in recent years and creating uncertainty with whether the channel can be kept open permanently.

That’s where Poseidon Water comes in. If the plant wins approval, mitigation for the millions of marine organisms killed by its ocean intake pipes would include ongoing dredging of the wetlands inlet.

One group, the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, supports the desalination plant, in part because of the money the project would bring to preserving the 1,400-acre reserve.

“Absent the implementation of Poseidon’s Bolsa Chica preservation plan, there is no identified long-term funding sources to ensure this valuable coastal habitat is preserved and enhanced in the future,” the conservancy wrote state legislators last year. In March, the conservancy joined a coalition of business and labor groups in writing Gov. Gavin Newsom in support of the desalination plant itself.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which opposes the plant.

“There is no doubt that the lowlands of Bolsa Chica are in increasingly dire need of support,” land trust Executive Director Kim Kolpin told regional water board regulators last year. “(But) is this project worth the cost of killing marine life for decades? BCLT says no. Our coastal environment is precious and we are opposed to projects that would harm it.”

A third group, Amigos de Bolsa Chica, has remained neutral on the plant construction — but if the project is approved, Amigos wants to see the mitigation done at the wetlands.

A matter of history

The differences of opinion on Poseidon start to make sense when you look at the distinctly different histories of the three groups.

Amigos de Bolsa Chica was the original group dedicated to preserving the wetlands, forming in 1976 to fight development plans there. At one point, those plans called for turning the current wetlands into a marina surrounded by more than 5,000 homes.

In 1989, after more than a decade of legal and regulatory battles, Amigos de Bolsa Chica reached a settlement with the developer to restrict building to the mesa in the northeastern part of the wetlands area. In return, the group agreed it would no longer oppose development.

That settlement led to the formation of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, originally a coalition of Amigos members and developer representatives. The conservancy was established to restore the wetlands and educate the public about the natural attributes of the area, but has been more sympathetic to development and business interests than Amigos de Bolsa Chica or the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

The conservancy’s support for the desalination plant reflects those pro-business leanings. The group’s board president is Weikko Wirta, manager of the AES Huntington Beach power plant. Poseidon plans to buy land from AES, adjacent to the power plant, for its project.

The Bolsa Chica Land Trust, meanwhile, emerged as the most ardent environmental group.

Amigos de Bolsa Chica’s 1989 settlement “angered a lot of people” who wanted more land preserved, said Thomas Anderson, an Amigos member since 1988 and now its administrative director.

Those more zealous environmentalists formed the land trust in 1992. After several lawsuits, they eventually got development whittled down even further — to 379 homes on 106 acres, fewer homes on a much smaller chunk of land than Amigos de Bolsa Chica had agreed to.

“The way each group formed is the reason we have different positions on Poseidon,” Anderson said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

All three groups give tours and have education programs, although only the land trust and conservancy are involved in restoration projects.

Even so, land trust Executive Director Kim Kolpin is wary of the conservancy, saying that while the group is involved with the estuary waters, it has demonstrated no interest in preserving the natural habitat of surrounding lands.

“The conservancy does not advocate for any of the upland habitats, since their board is connected with the developers that want to build all over it,” Kolpin said. “As with Poseidon, the conservancy is known to take positions contrary to the legitimate environmental and conservation organizations.”

Conservancy President Wirta did not respond to inquiries from the Southern California News Group. Conservancy Board Member Keith Bohr, a real estate agent, and conservancy Operations Manager Eric Paquette referred inquiries to the group’s CEO, Patrick Brenden. Brenden said he was too busy to answer questions.

Shaky funding

The Poseidon plan, 22 years in the making so far, won a permit in April from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. As a condition of that permit, the company will have to pay to dredge the inlet, restore other portions of the wetlands, and build a reef off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The project now needs a permit from the Coastal Commission before it can negotiate a contract to sell its water to the Orange County Water District.

Under the current terms, Poseidon’s responsibility for dredging Bolsa Chica would be concurrent with the start of plant operations.

A trust fund for dredging was part of a mitigation project for ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, who paid for construction of the inlet. The channel was opened in 2006, but the recession that hit the country two years later contributed to lower-than-predicted interest rates and by 2018 the fund was depleted.

Dredging in 2019, 2020 and this year was paid for from the state’s environmental license plate fund, but each year has required a separate appropriation and it’s uncertain how long the project can continue to win that funding.

“On one hand, the state does highly value its wetlands for habitat, carbon sequestration, public recreation, and sea-level rise resiliency,” Kolpin said. “On the other hand, even though California is a financial powerhouse, we have massively expensive issues even just in natural resources — fires, drought, sea-level rise and agricultural conversion.

“So will the state allow Bolsa Chica’s inlet to fill in and close? My best guess is that it is 50/50. No one wants it to close, but funding for the dredging is now at the mercy of the state Department of Finance.”

Source: Orange County Register

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