Poseidon desalination project is rejected

After hours of heated debate, the California Coastal Commission voted against a controversial plan by Poseidon Water to build a giant desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Despite worsening drought and repeated calls from Governor Gavin Newsom to harness the Pacific Ocean as a source of drinking water, the trustees voted unanimously opposed the plan Thursday night. The decision, recommended by committee employees, could end the company’s plans for a $1.4 billion plant.

In rejecting Poseidon’s permit, the commission demonstrated its independence from the Newsom administration and also sent the message that high costs, stiff opposition and dangers such as sea level rise could hinder a major obstacle for the large desalination plants on the California coast.

The governor has said that California needs the desalination plant to cope with extreme drought, and he recently warned that a vote against the project would be a “huge mistake.”

Activists, who called the proposal an opposition that would privatize water infrastructure for profit, said the decision was a victory for fact-based regulations over politics. .

The project was first proposed more than two decades ago, and the long battle has included a list of controversial issues. These include the proposed plant’s impacts on marine life, vulnerability to sea-level rise, and heavy corporate political lobbying.

Spectators protest against proposed Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach

Spectators protesting against the proposed Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach, listen to speakers at a California Coastal Commission hearing to consider whether they will approve a permit for Poseidon Water to build a home. large desalination plant in Huntington Beach or not.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Before the vote, Vice President Caryl Hart said the project had raised many concerns.
“This desalination proposal is to privatize water. It brings in a large private return,” Hart said. She agreed with agency employees and said the site was the wrong place to build the plant, in part because it would be on top of an earthquake fault.

She also noted that the company has yet to have a binding agreement from any of the water districts that require the water supply. “It would hurt the public welfare,” she said.

Commissioner Dayna Bochco said she agreed with the staff’s findings and that the impacts on marine life would be “an astounding amount of destruction”.

Meagan Harmon, one of the governor’s appointees on the committee, said the project would have a “disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable.”

“I wish I didn’t have to take part in this vote. I am not opposed to desalination,” Harmon said.

In testimony leading up to the vote, Poseidon and his supporters argued that building a desalination plant would support local water supplies and make the area more resilient. They cite severe droughts in California and the western United States and higher temperatures due to global warming, pointing to a growing shortage of imported water supplies from the Colorado River and State Water Project. serious.

Opponents of Poseidon argue that desalinated water is unnecessary because northern Orange County already has an abundant groundwater supply and is recycling wastewater. They say the project will only benefit Canadian parent company Brookfield Infrastructure and its investors, while low-income earners will be particularly affected by the rate hike.

“Dealination of seawater should be the last option,” said Tracy Quinn, president and chief executive officer of the environmental group Heal the Bay. There are better, more economical solutions to increase water supplies in Orange County, she said.

Zoey Lambe-Hommel attends the California Coastal Commission.

Zoey Lambe-Hommel, of Long Beach, who is against the desalination project proposed by Poseidon in Huntington Beach, attends the California Coastal Commission.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The cost has yet to be finalized, the company said, but monthly water rates could increase by about $3 to $6 per household. Committee staff concluded that despite the lack of cost details, the increase in water rates for the project “would disproportionately affect millions of low-income residents.”

When committee staff asked to reject the project last month, they wrote in their report that in this Orange County area, there was a “lack of short-term need for the project” and the proposed water projects Others – including wastewater recycling – will be more cost-effective and appear to be able to meet the demand expected in the coming decades.

Opponents of the project were elated by the unanimous vote.

“This makes no sense at all. It’s the wrong place, the wrong kind of facility, and basically a foreign corporation going to privatize water,” said Andrea León-Grossmann, climate action director for the nonprofit group Azul.

Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coast Guard Network, celebrated her victory after 12 years of fighting the project.

“It was a very important moment for the coast. It sends a message to those who want to privatize water, who want unsustainable development along the coast,” Jordan said. “That’s why we have the Coastal Commission, to protect against destructive projects like this. They are an independent agency. They must not be swayed by any politician, no matter how powerful. This is their job, according to science and the law. It happened today, and it was a great moment for the coast. ”

Poseidon Water responded to the failure in a statement, thanking Newsom and others for urging the committee to support the project.

Union workers supporting the Poseidon Water desalination project show signs of support at a California Coastal Commission hearing

Union workers who support the Poseidon Water desalination project signaled their support at a California Coastal Commission hearing.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“California continues to face a severe drought with no end in sight,” said Jessica Jones, corporate communications director. “We firmly believe that this desalination project will create a sustainable, drought-resistant water source for Orange County, as well as for San Diego County.”

More than 300 people filled a hearing room in Costa Mesa to hear testimony on the proposal and voice their opinions. Several signs were held that read “No Poseidon! No water on Wall Street! ” and “We don’t want it, we don’t need it” and “Fight climate change; Support desal! ”

During the hearing, some local water officials argued that the area needed water, while others vehemently objected.

Doug Davert, board chair for the Eastern Orange County Water District, said Newsom was right and “we needed a new water supply that was drought-resistant and climate-resilient.”

Leader of the Irvine Ranch Water District has said that water is not needed and that project approval will force communities to pay unnecessarily more for water, increasing costs for low-income communities. Paul Weghorst, the district’s executive director of water policy, called the proposal “a problem-seeking solution.”

Agency employees detailed the reasons why they determined that permits should be denied, including risks ranging from sea level rise to risks that construction could affect a toxic location nearby.

State scientists have detailed how the project will cause significant harm to fish larvae and plankton that make up the foundation of marine food webs. They said the company’s proposed environmental mitigation projects, which include single-entry dredging, restoration of coastal marshes and construction of an artificial reef, would not be appropriate.

Dayna Bochco, California Coastal Commission Commissioner joins commissioners as they listen to community input

Dayna Bochco, commissioner of the California Coastal Commission, center, joined the commissioners as they listened to public input.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Two days before the meeting, Jennifer K. Roy, a corporate attorney, emailed the commissioners with an attachment she described as a “Nominee-Recommended Employee Report.” The document is prepared on the same Coastal Commission letterhead as the employee report, with the agency’s San Francisco address, Newsom’s name, and state seal.

The document states, “Employee Recommendation: Approval with conditions.”

That document drew condemnation from Poseidon opponents, who called the newly written report’s official letterhead fraudulent and inappropriate.

As the hearing began, Committee Chairwoman Donne Brownsey said she spoke with the company about the “inappropriate format” of the document.

“It was not a good decision on the part of the applicant to include it in the Coastal Commission letterhead, because it caused some confusion,” Brownsey said. “We have not seen this before. We hope this is the last time we see it.”

DJ Moore, an attorney for Poseidon Water, apologized for the confusion caused by the document.

Moore said the urgent need for the project is because water supplies are threatened by drought and climate change.

“Conservation is not enough,” says Moore. “De-salination provides drought-resistant local water supplies.”

Audience members support a speaker against the proposed Poseidon desalination plant

Members of the audience show support for a speaker against the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach at the California Coastal Commission meeting.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, the Santa Ana Area Water Quality Control Board voted to approve a permit for Poseidon Water. The board’s assessment has been clouded by allegations of political interference by the Newsom administration, which was lobbied by Poseidon.

In the wake of that decision, Newsom was criticized by Poseidon’s opponents when he was photographed dining at a Napa Valley restaurant while celebrating the birthday of a friend who had lobbied for the company.

According to state filings, the company has spent more than $979,000 on lobbying in California since 2019.

Poseidon Water proposed building the plant using some of the existing infrastructure at the AES Huntington Beach Energy Center, including a 14-foot wide inlet that would draw seawater from the ocean approximately 1,800 feet away. offshore. Under the proposal, the desalination plant would be capable of producing up to 50 million gallons of drinking water per day.

A similar plant 60 miles south in Carlsbad, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, has been supplying drinking water since 2015. Water from the nation’s largest desalination plant is sold to the Authority. San Diego Water Authority under a 30-year contract. Water makes up about 10% of the water used by 3.3 million people in the region, and the Water Authority says a typical monthly cost is about $5 per household.

Santa Barbara also has a working desalination plant. And in Dana Point, the South Coast Water District is moving forward with plans to build the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project, a smaller plant that could stop tiny sea creatures from being sucked in and killed by sucking in the water. sea ​​through inclined wells on the ocean floor.

Jones, director of communications for Poseidon Water, said in a statement ahead of the vote that if the permit is denied, “the path is not clear for new large-scale desalination projects in the state of California.”

Several trustees said they think desalination has a role to play in addressing California’s water needs, not just this site.

Jack Ainsworth, executive director of the commission, suggested that California conduct a survey to determine the best locations for future desalination plants along the coast, looking for safe locations. Protect against sea level rise and seismic hazards, minimize impacts on coastal ecosystems, and are prioritized based on the urgent need for new water supplies in certain areas.

“We all agree and recognize that the ongoing historic drought is a crisis in California and that desalination facilities will be part of California’s future water portfolio,” Ainsworth said.

But building this factory in Huntington Beach, he said, would be “the wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-05-12/poseidon-desalination-project Poseidon desalination project is rejected

Edmund DeMarche

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