Vote Delayed on Permit for Proposed Desalination Plant

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Huntington Beach Pier at sunset. Poseidon Resources is trying to build a desalination plant along the city's coastline, next to the power plant that is south of the pier. (Photo by: Jason Maehl)

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board has postponed until February a decision on whether to approve a permit that would allow Poseidon Resources' proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant to draw water directly from the ocean.

Before postponing the vote, the board heard from 23 elected officials, company executives, environmentalists, and others about the proposed plant, which would be the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere.

"This desalination facility will provide 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water per day, which is essential for the economic growth of Orange County," said Ronnie Guyer, a representative of state Assemblyman Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach). "It is clear that this project will not create any significant environmental impact," he added.

Environmentalists, however, argued that the plant's water intake would have harmful environmental effects, and urged the water board and Poseidon to consider alternatives.

Joe Geever of the Surfrider Foundation said the project's design can be modified so that "the best intake for minimizing marine life mortality would be feasible. That has not been considered or analyzed in the fact sheet, and we think it should be."

For more than a decade, the Connecticut-based company has been seeking to build two large-scale desalination facilities along the Southern California coast, one in Huntington Beach and another in Carlsbad. The plants would convert seawater into drinking water, which the company plans on selling to local water agencies.

Supporters say the Huntington Beach project would create jobs and produce a local, reliable water supply for southern Orange County, which now relies on imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River.

But the project has met strong opposition from environmentalists, who say large-scale desalination is highly energy-intensive, damages marine ecosystems and will produce water that costs significantly more than it does now.

Friday's hearing was part of a years-long process of obtaining environmental permits from several state and local government agencies. The project also needs approval from the California Coastal Commission.

The regional water quality board is deciding whether to issue another five-year pollutant discharge permit to Poseidon for the project. The new permit was modified to allow the proposed plant to draw water directly from the Pacific Ocean, and stems from a recent statewide policy on seawater intakes.

Poseidon Resources originally planned for the facility to use water from an adjacent power plant. The power plant already draws in large amounts of water to cool its generators.

Last year, the state water board concluded that the seawater intakes kill "marine life to the detriment of the marine environment," and issued a policy that requires power plants to vastly reduce their use of seawater intakes over the next decade.

So Poseidon changed its plans so the desalination plant would draw seawater directly from the intake, bypassing the power plant. Under this scenario, the new state limitations wouldn't apply.

But environmental groups say industrial-scale ocean intakes - regardless of whether they're used by power plants or desalination facilities - kill large swaths of marine life, including smaller organisms that form the base of the ocean food chain.

The groups argue that allowing Poseidon to draw in 126.7 million gallons per day of seawater, which is far more than the 36 million gallons that the neighboring power plant will be allowed to draw in, would undermine the state policy.

Poseidon counters that a very small amount of sea life will be affected, and that the new state policy is limited to power plant uses.

The regional water board said it delayed the vote in order to give time to respond to all written comments from project opponents. The board will no longer allow any written or oral comments, and plans to vote on the intake permit at its Feb. 10 meeting.

Board member Linda Ackerman recused herself from the hearing, apparently due to a conflict-of-interest with Poseidon.

"Linda is leaving because she's recusing herself. She has an issue that she's discussed with David, [who] concludes that she should not be participating," said water quality board chair Carole Beswick, referring to the board's attorney David Rice, in the only comments on the issue before the hearing.

State regulations require certain officials to explain their potential conflicts of interest when recusing themselves, but those rules do not apply to water quality control board members. It was unclear why Linda Ackerman recused herself from the hearing.

Linda Ackerman's husband, Dick Ackerman, is a partner at a law firm that has represented Poseidon.

Ackerman, a former state senator for the 33rd District in Orange County, is a partner with the law firm Nossaman LLP, which was hired by Poseidon to represent it on "land use and permit approvals" for the desalination plant. The firm also "provided detailed permitting strategies and guidance for the 18 local, state, and regional permits that Poseidon needs to construct" the facility, according to Nossaman's website.

At Nossaman, Dick Ackerman "assists clients in dealing with government and special districts on how to get through the political process," according to its website.

It was unclear why Linda Ackerman didn't explain her conflict. She could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that state regulations require all public officials to explain their potential conflict of interest when recusing themselves from a vote. It also incorrectly stated that Nossman currently represents Poseidon Resources. The statement was based on information posted on Nossman's website as of Dec. 12, 2011. Nossman has not represented Poseidon since 2009, according to a firm spokesman. We regret the errors.

You can reach Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com

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