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Poseidon’s desalination plan for Huntington Beach delayed again

After years of bureaucratic hurdles and increasing regulatory requirements, Poseidon Water was dealt yet another delay Friday, Aug. 7, in its pursuit of a controversial desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board concluded three days of hearings on the project’s next permit by telling Poseidon it must return with a more robust, more detailed mitigation plan to offset the environmental damage the project will cause.

“What we ended up with was not nearly enough,” said board member Daniel Selmi of the mitigation proposed at the outset of Friday’s meeting. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty (about) how this will work out.”

The board will reconvene Sept. 17 to assess Poseidon’s progress on an updated mitigation plan and to discuss any outstanding issues. It’s not known if the board will have adequate information to cast a final vote on the permit at that meeting.

Poseidon has been developing the county’s biggest desalination project, and pursuing permits from multiple agencies, since 1998. The regional board alone has twice before approved permits — in 2006 and a renewal in 2012 — and is now considering a second renewal because the previous one has expired.

Environmental standards have grown more stringent since the 2012 approval, and on Friday board members appeared eager to fulfill the spirit of those changes before renewing Poseidon’s permit.

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni appeared to take the latest delay in stride.

“The regional board is deliberately moving towards approving the amendment and renewal of the Huntington Beach Desalination Project’s permit,” Maloni said. “We look forward to working with the regional board and state resource agencies on finalizing the details of a feasible mitigation plan.”

The company’s quest to build a new, local water supply is touted by supporters as a drought proof resource for a future where climate change and other factors could jeopardize existing flows.

Opponents, including a coalition of more than 20 environmental groups, have argued that the water is not needed, is too expensive, would unnecessarily kill marine life and would unfairly burden low-income ratepayers. They’ve also criticized the lobbying and campaign contributions made by Poseidon.

“Despite intense political pressure to approve Poseidon’s project today, the regional board determined that the current proposal fails to adequately protect marine life or ratepayers from this unnecessary project,”  said Sean Bothwell of California Coastkeeper Alliance. “We applaud the regional board for taking their public trust duty seriously by directing staff to go back to the drawing board.”

An appeal — and possibly lawsuits — are expected, regardless of the regional board’s eventual vote to approve or deny a permit for the $1 billion project.

Bothwell confirmed that his group would appeal on the grounds that the regional board didn’t follow its own rules and would create a bad precedent.

Opponents appealed both previous regional board permits, without success, to the State Water Quality Control Board. Additionally, the California Coastkeeper Alliance was party to an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the state Lands Commission approval of the project.

If Poseidon wins a new regional board permit, it will then go before the Coastal Commission for its last major permit before negotiating a contract to sell the water to the Orange County Water District.

Mitigation issues

The official state Ocean Plan established rules for desalination plants in 2015. Among other things, the plan says the preferred method for taking water from the ocean is to draw it into pipes through the sand beneath the ocean floor, which would prevent larvae and other small marine life from dying in the process.

However, regional board staff determined that such subsurface intake was infeasible for the Huntington Beach location because the volume of water drawn would jeopardize fresh water supplies inland.

Instead, in Poseidon’s plan, the pipes will draw water directly from the ocean. To compensate for the sea life that will be killed in that process, Poseidon proposed restoring 5.7 acres of wetlands at Bolsa Chica, enhancing water circulation there and paying for the inlet dredging.

That restoration was increased by Poseidon to 52 acres going into Friday’s meeting. By the end of the meeting, the amount was increased to 84 acres by the board and its staff.

That dredging is necessary for the Bolsa Chica estuary to remain open to the ocean and sustain the existing bounty of wetland wildlife. Funding dedicated for dredging, needed every year or two, has been exhausted.

But several regional board members raised concerns that the 108 acres of mitigation credit proposed by staff for the dredging was too much, because the mitigation typically involves habitat restoration and the dredging would be a maintenance project.

Staff was directed by the regional board on Friday to work with Poseidon to develop a plan that included the dredging while also increasing the amount of restoration in the mitigation plan. The preferred location for that work is at Bolsa Chica, although board members indicated they would be flexible if it’s determined that performing significantly more mitigation at those wetlands is infeasible.

Coastal Commission

The Coastal Commission’s Tom Luster had earlier told the regional board earlier that the mitigation was inadequate by the standards of his agency. Poseidon will need a Coastal Commission permit from if it gets the green light from the regional board.

But Luster also raised the possibility that the Bolsa Chica Wetlands mitigation had more serious problems: Because of the uncertain effect of sea level rise on the wetlands, the mitigation proposal could not anticipate the area’s long-term maintenance needs. He said Coastal Commission staff determined that additional mitigation would be needed elsewhere, and floated the idea of building an offshore reef.

Luster also raised concerns that the proposed location of the Poseidon plant itself could be inappropriate. He said the proposal didn’t adequately address the future threat of sea level rise, flooding and tsunamis.

Even if those issues don’t interfere with Poseidon winning a permit from the regional board, Luster signaled that they would likely have to be addressed to satisfy the Coastal Commission.

Expensive water

Poseidon plans to sell 50 million gallons of desalted water a day — enough for about 450,000 people — to the Orange County Water District.

The district manages the groundwater basin that is used by its 19 member agencies to distribute water to 2.5 million residents in north and central Orange County. That local groundwater supplies 77 percent of the water to the district’s service area, while 23 percent is imported from northern California and the Colorado River.

Poseidon’s water would supplant about half of the imported water sent to north and central Orange County.

The desalted water is estimated to cost about $2,200 an acre foot in 2022, the earliest the plant could be operating, according to John Kennedy of the Orange County Water District. Current groundwater costs about $600 an acre foot while water imported currently costs about $1,100 an acre foot. An acre foot is enough for about three families for a year.

Poseidon and some advocates point out that, historically, water prices have tended to go up. They say, over time, desalted water would cost less than imports. However, Orange County Water District projections in 2018 show that would take between 13 years and 30 years, and the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which oversees imported water, has estimated it could take 48 years.

Source: Orange County Register

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