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Support of Poseidon’s desalination at stake in water board election

Poseidon Water’s long, winding road to building a desalination plant in Huntington Beach could face its biggest obstacle yet if opponents prevail in the upcoming election.

For years, the Orange County Water District has expressed interest in buying the desalted water, provided Poseidon receives the necessary regulatory permits. But the water district’s appetite for the controversial project could be in jeopardy after Nov. 3, if two board members who support the project are upset in their reelection bids and replaced by Poseidon skeptics.

That could leave the board in a 5-5 deadlock on Poseidon, short of the majority needed to approve a contract.

“If there’s not a majority, no contract would be signed,” said Bethany Webb of the activist group HB Huddle, which opposes the project. “So this is very important. The contract is the biggest piece of the puzzle.”

There’s been no sign of interest in contracting with Poseidon from any other agency that could distribute the huge volume of desalted water to be produced, enough for 450,000 people.

Incumbents are rarely defeated in down-ticket races like water districts, where the average voter has had little exposure to the candidates and their positions. But it does happen, particularly if the race includes a relatively high-profile issue like the $1 billion desalination project.

Two years ago, Poseidon opponent Kelly Rowe roundly upset Orange County Water District board incumbent Shawn Dewane, a staunch supporter, by 59%-41%.

Mounting opposition

Over the 21 years Poseidon has been pursuing the project, opposition has coalesced. A coalition of more than 20 environmental groups and scores of residents turned out to speak against the project at numerous workshops and hearings held the past two years by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is expected to eventually issue a permit for the project.

“Given the strong participation by the public opposed to the proposed project at the regional water board hearings, it appears to me to be feasible to gain the seats” in the upcoming election, said Michael Wellborn of the Orange County League of Conservation Voters, which opposes the project.

Proponents say the project would provide north and central Orange County with drought-proof water at a time when climate change is expected to make droughts increasingly severe.

Opponents counter that the water is unneeded, the damage to marine life is unmerited, and the price of Poseidon’s water would be twice that of imported water — and more than three times that of the area’s primary source, local groundwater.

The proposed contract between the Orange County Water District and Poseidon would oblige the district to buy 56,000 acre feet annually — enough for 450,000 people — whether it needs the more expensive desalted water or not.

A 2018 study by the Municipal Water District of Orange County said that in the best case scenario, no shortages in north and central county are projected during droughts and so there would be no need for Poseidon’s water. In the worst case scenario, less than half the 56,000 acre feet per year would be needed, according to the study.

That would leave customers paying higher prices for desalted water they didn’t need, according to the study.

Poseidon has challenged the study and said that subsequent developments in state’s “Water Fix” infrastructure plans make imported shortages more likely. Poseidon declined comment for this story.

Hurdles ahead

Poseidon and the Orange County Water District agreed in 2018 to an updated, nonbinding term sheet that specifies contract details. But a final contract can’t be approved by the water board until the company has obtained two final regulatory permits for the project.

The first of those permits would come from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which after three days of hearings this summer appeared to have its concerns addressed — with the single exception of Poseidon’s mitigation for damage to marine life. Poseidon is looking at expanding its mitigation proposal, with a regional board vote anticipated in upcoming months.

The final permit, from the state Coastal Commission, could prove more challenging. Commission staff has said it would like to see even more mitigation than the regional board is requesting and also has raised concerns about whether the Poseidon site is safe from sea level rise.

If approved by the commission, the project would go for a final contract approval from OCWD, the de facto public sponsor of the project.

However, there’s a critical caveat should a contract be finalized.

The current term sheet says the project would be contingent on a subsidy — $475 per acre foot or $26.6 million a year for 15 years — from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Metropolitan has temporarily suspended its funding source for the such subsidies, dubbed the Local Resource Program, and is reassessing the program’s scope and future. Without that subsidy, the increased cost to customers would be even greater.

The candidates

The 2018 term sheet detailing contract terms was approved by Orange County Water District in an 8-2 vote. Five of the directors voting “Yes” remain on the board, as do both of those voting “No.”

The two opposing directors have been joined by Rowe, who has been outspoken with his objections. The five supportive directors have been joined by Tri Ta and Jordan Brandman, who flanked the podium as fellow directors Cathy Green and Vincent Sarmiento spoke in favor of Poseidon before the regional water board last December.

That makes an apparent 7-3 split on the board in favor of Poseidon.

Poseidon supporters Green and Ta are the two incumbents facing challengers on Nov. 3. Green spoke about the need to reduce dependence on imported water — about 23% of OCWD’s current water supply — when she addressed the regional board.

“We have made progress over the past decade and desalination is the last step,” said Green, whose district includes parts of Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley. “Desalination is the only water source that is immune to climate change.”

Green’s reelection bid is being buoyed by a Poseidon-funded slate mailer, which campaign finance disclosures show cost the company $35,500 forGreen’s share. Green’s sole challenger, computer systems engineer Michael Elliott, has been endorsed by the Sierra Club, HB Huddle and the Orange County League of Conservation Voters.

Although Elliott said he doesn’t object to the concept of desalination, he opposes the Poseidon plan.

“We don’t need the water,” Elliott said. “At least not yet. … The current terms sheet forces the ratepayers to pay for this water at three times the normal rate, whether it is needed or not.”

Ta, whose district includes Los Alamitos, Seal Beach and parts of Buena Park, Cypress, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Stanton, and Westminster, did not respond to Register inquiries about his position on Poseidon. Of his four challengers, just one expressed reservations about the project to the Register.

One challenger is Kris Beard, a former Garden Grove councilman and former member of the West Orange County Water Board. He said he’s not opposed to the idea of desalted water but that a contract would need more protections from unforeseen cost hikes. He also has environmental concerns. As a councilman in 2015, he voted for a city resolution to oppose the Poseidon project.

“A desalination project of this magnitude and duration needs to be scientifically sound and economically justifiable,” he told the Register in September. “Ratepayers need to know up front what the estimated increase will be in their monthly water bill if desalinated water is purchased and used by OCWD.”

Of the three other challengers, Jasmin Carmadella said she supports the project, Samantha Bao Anh Nguyen said she was unfamiliar with it and Tai Do did not respond to Register inquiries.

If even one of the two incumbents is defeated, opponents are expected to celebrate.

“It would be significant as it would show the growing awareness on the part of voters looking to have the project scuttled,” said Wellborn of the League of Conservation Voters.

A new buyer?

Should Poseidon receive all the regulatory permits needed but then get the cold shoulder from the Orange County Water District, there are two other area water agencies with big enough consumer bases to support the massive amount of water Poseidon says it must produce for the project to be viable.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which oversees the distribution of imported water throughout the region, has not traditionally been directly involved with local water projects, has not engaged in public-private partnerships, and tends to defer to local communities.

“The chance of Met stepping in with a contract — there’s not much chance of that,” said Metropolitan Water District Board Member Linda Ackerman of Irvine. Fellow Board Member Jose Solorio of Santa Ana shares Ackerman’s skepticism.

The other big agency is the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which distributes Metropolitan’s imported water to local districts in Orange County. The Municipal Water District has been somewhat wary of the Poseidon project, particularly in the 2018 study of county water projects where it placed Poseidon at the bottom of the list in terms of need and feasibility.

While Ackerman is among those who thinks it unlikely the Municipal Water District would contract with Poseidon, a different makeup of the that district board could conceivably change the district’s posture.

Poseidon seems to see an advantage in having friendly members on the seven-member Municipal Water District board. On the slate mailer supporting Cathy Green, Poseidon also pitched in about $35,000 each to promote the candidacies of Debbie Neev, Stacy Taylor and Tyler Diep. In that race, the Sierra Club and the League of Orange County Conservation Voters are backing incumbent Megan Yoo Schneider and longtime Municipal Water District Assistant General Manager Karl Seckel.

Source: Orange County Register

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