Desalination: Poseidon still trying to plant its trident into Huntington Beach

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HUNTINGTON BEACH—Southern California was hit with enough rain in 2019 for many experts and observers to declare an end to the region’s most recent drought – which could be bad news for Poseidon Water’s plans to build a desalination plant near land’s edge in Huntington Beach. It is hard to drum up a lot of noise for water security when we’re not in a drought. The current state of Southern California’s water security – or insecurity – certainly isn’t giving Poseidon any ammunition to make its case for a $1 billion desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Southern California’s droughts, of course, are cyclical, so the day will come again when Poseidon will be able to play its water insecurity card. A lack of a drought today, just the same, isn’t going to derail Poseidon’s quest to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

It’s been a while since The Log has covered Poseidon’s plans to build a massive desalination plant on the central Orange County coast. Here’s a quick refresher: a private water company is charging an Orange County public entity $1 billion to build a saltwater conversion plant in Huntington Beach, allowing the county to offer 50 million gallons of freshwater daily to nearly 500,000 people for the next 50 years. The freshwater would, of course, be available when nature offers the region a drought.

Our most recent drought being declared officially over, however, has definitely altered Poseidon’s momentum to bring its billion-dollar Huntington Beach plant online. It’s hard to have any urgency for a drought-immune saltwater-to-freshwater conversion plant when there isn’t a drought.

To rely upon this logic, just the same, to explain the most recent delays in Poseidon’s public permitting process would not be fair. There are certainly a variety of factors why California’s State Water Board has delayed an upcoming public hearing on Poseidon Water’s desalination plant proposal – and The Log knows not all of those factors.

Here we are, nonetheless: an Oct. 25 public hearing on Poseidon’s draft permit for the Huntington Beach desalination plant has been postponed. Ray Hiemstra, who is Orange County Coastkeeper’s associate director, confirmed with The Log the draft permit would likely be available by the end of November. A public hearing on the draft permit would be held Dec. 6, assuming nothing changes in the next eight to 10 weeks.

The Log reached out to the State Water Board’s designated representative on the Poseidon desalination project, hoping to gain more insight as to status of the project and what could be expected when the next public hearing is officially held. The Water Board’s designated representative for the Poseidon desalination proposal – Mark Smythe – confirmed the state agency is still working on a draft permit.

“We are developing the draft permit and supporting documents with Regional and State Board staff. Our goal is to have draft documents out before the end of the year for public comment,” Smythe told The Log in an email. “Our process will then include review and response to comments that may result in revisions to the draft permit and supporting documents as appropriate, and then the revised draft permit and supporting documents can go to the board to consider for adoption.”

Opponents of the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach have posed several questions about the project: it’s too expensive; it’s the least reliable water supply alternative; and, the plant would cause extensive damage to the ocean environment.

Groups such as Orange County Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation have also contended cheaper and better water supply alternatives are available for Orange County to pursue.

UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation published a report in April, stating the proposed desalination plant would be harmful to low-income ratepayers.

Poseidon, meanwhile, contends its desalination operation – both the one already operational in San Diego County and the other proposed in Orange County – is one tool in the shed to be used in California’s fight against cyclical drought conditions. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, issued an executive order in April, directing his administration to “think differently” and “act boldly” in developing “a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system.”

A press release issued by Poseidon two days after Newsom’s executive order stated the private water company fits squarely within the governor’s directive.

“Gavin Newsom delivered an executive order to develop a strategy for climate-resilient water system. We couldn’t agree more and the implementation of seawater desalination in California is a great first step,” Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said in the released statement. “Desalination has been adopted by [more than] 120 countries, with places like Israel and United Arab Emirates relying on it for the majority of their potable water.”

Either way, the fate of Poseidon’s Huntington Beach plant could well be decided on Dec. 6. There is still time, accordingly, to voice your opinion on the proposed plant.

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