Poseidon Water, developer of the controversial desalination proposal for Huntington Beach, spent big in an effort to win water board seats for sympathetic candidates in the election Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Backing five candidates for two water boards important to the future of the $1 billion plant, Poseidon spent at least $419,000 in the past two months on independent campaign expenditures outside of the candidates’ own efforts. That’s more than twice what the those five favored candidates themselves raised for their campaigns. In fact, Poseidon’s spending was 50% more than that collectively raised by all 18 candidates for those five seats.
“They really upped the ante,” said Poseidon opponent Ray Hiemstra, chairman of the Sierra Club Orange County Political Committee. “It just shows how concerned they are about these water districts. They want their people on the boards.”
But money isn’t everything.
Poseidon’s efforts helped two incumbents get reelected to the Orange County Water District, which has reached preliminary contract terms to buy the company’s desalted water. But the three candidates Poseidon supported for the Municipal Water District of Orange County were losing by broad margins as of Thursday, with most ballots tallied.
The front runners in two of those Municipal Water District races were endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Orange County League of Conservation Voters, both of which oppose the project. The Municipal Water District plays an indirect but potentially key role in Poseidon’s future.
In the five races Poseidon was involved with, four featured incumbents — two backed by the company and two opposed by it — and all four held comfortable leads.
In down-ticket races such as water boards, where voters have limited knowledge of the candidates, incumbents typically prevail. That means that Poseidon’s spending may have changed the margins of victory but probably not who actually won.
“This shows the power of incumbency,” Hiemstra said. “It is incredibly hard to get rid of an incumbent.”
In response to questions from the Orange County Register about the election, Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said, “We support candidates, causes and organizations that promote a strong business environment for which water reliability is critical. All contributions are made and disclosed in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.”
He declined to answer several more specific election questions and did not provide requested information about the company’s contributions.
Path to approval
Maloni and other Poseidon advocates tout the project as a drought-proof water source during a time of growing climate change, and a safeguard against imported water interruptions caused by earthquakes. Opponents say the desalted water won’t be needed, costs much more than other sources and will needlessly harm marine life.
Poseidon needs two more regulatory permits, one each from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state Coastal Commission. If it receives those, it can then finalize its preliminary contract with the Orange County Water District and begin construction. That district manages local groundwater supplies for north and central Orange County
The current 10-member water district board appears to favor such a contract by a 7-3 margin. Had Poseidon opponents prevailed Tuesday, it likely would have deadlocked the board 5-5 and scuttled a contract. Preliminary contract language make the project contingent on receiving several hundred million in operational subsidies from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water for Southern California.
While Poseidon clearly had something critical at stake in the Orange County Water District election, the Municipal Water District poses several less direct opportunities and threats for the project.
If the Orange County Water District rejected a contract, the Municipal Water District could step in as the buyer, although the district board has not publicly explored that possibility.
Additionally, the Municipal Water District, which distributes Metropolitan’s imported water in Orange County, would be responsible for forwarding the Poseidon subsidy application from the Orange County Water District to the Metropolitan Water District. It could interfere with that request, although Municipal General Manager Rob Hunter described the process as routine and could not recall his district ever holding up such applications.
The Municipal Water District also issues periodic overviews of the county’s future water needs and proposed water projects. A 2018 report from the district ranked Poseidon at the bottom of a list of projects based on need and feasibility, helping fuel opposition to the plant.
Finally, the Municipal Water District has three seats on the 38-member Metropolitan Water board and could influence the decision there about Poseidon’s subsidy request.
Orange County Water District Division 4 incumbent Tri Ta outraised second-place finisher and Poseidon skeptic Kris Beard, $65,300 to $6,600. Division 6 incumbent Cathy Green raised $13,500 while Poseidon critic Michael Elliott raised less than $2,000. Both incumbents have been supportive of Poseidon and were leading Thursday by more than 20 percentage points.
Municipal Water District Division 3 incumbent Robert McVicker raised less than $2,000 while Poseidon’s favored candidate, Tyler Diep, raised $54,250. McVicker was leading by 17 percentage points Thursday.
Municipal Division 7 incumbent Megan Yoo Schneider raised $10,000 while Poseidon-favored Debbie Neev raised $4,400. Yoo Schneider was leading by 15 percentage points.
In the race for the vacant Municipal Division 4 seat, Poseidon critic and retiring Municipal Assistant General Manager Karl Seckel raised $30,000 while Poseidon-favored Stacy Taylor raised $31,300. Seckel was leading by 9 percentage points.
But the big money came in outside spending by Poseidon, which does not appear to have contributed directly to the candidates.
The company spent $145,000 to promote Green, Diep, Neev and Taylor on a slate mailer. And it spent at least $224,500 more on the candidates by giving to PACs that then spent the money on the Poseidon candidates.
For instance, on Oct. 13, Poseidon gave $35,000 to Taxpayers for Ethical Government and three days later the PAC spent $32,460 on Taylor. Similar patterns occurred between Poseidon and Parents for Safe Communities, Californians for Fiscal Responsibility and Californians for a Better Future, with the PACs taking a few thousand dollars for their services each time.
In the case of Engage OC, a PAC that spent $192,450 on the five Poseidon candidates, Poseidon gave money to intermediary PACs which then gave similar amounts to Engage OC.
Among those expressing dismay at Poseidon’s spending was Seckel, the only Poseidon critic poised to win without being an incumbent.
“I found it to be a bit offensive for Poseidon to attempt to buy seats on the various boards, including providing support in three divisional races for the MWDOC board,” he said. “What they did is certainly legal, but in my opinion, it is not appropriate. Major funding by a project proponent should not be the driver in our water resources planning.”
Source: Orange County Register