The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board last week approved a modified permit that would allow the proposed desalination facility in Huntington Beach to draw water directly from the ocean.
If built, the plant, proposed by Poseidon Resources, would be one of the largest desalination facilities in the Western Hemisphere.
This latest permit will allow the Huntington Beach plant to draw up to 126.7 million gallons of ocean water per day instead of the original plan to reuse water already drawn by an adjacent power plant. That plan became unworkable in 2010 when the state decided that power plants must vastly reduce their use of seawater intakes over the next decade.
"Poseidon is obviously thrilled and excited to be taking another step in the regulatory process, and we appreciate the thoughtful analysis that the [regional water board] gave to this issue," said Brian Lochrie, a spokesman for the project. "We look forward to moving on to the [California] Coastal Commission," the state regulatory panel that also must approve the project before it can be built.
Environmentalists, however, say the permit undermines the intent of the state policy on limiting seawater intakes by power plants. That policy emerged from a finding that large-scale withdrawal of seawater kills or injures marine life "to the detriment of the marine environment." The regulations apply only to cooling intakes used by power plants.
"We don't have statewide policy for this, so lacking that statewide policy we're forced to challenge them jurisdiction by jurisdiction," said Conner Everts, a chairman of the Desal Response Group. He said environmental advocates plan to appeal the latest permit to the state Water Resources Control Board.
Beyond that appeal, the Coastal Commission is scheduled to review an appeal challenging Huntington Beach's approval of the project.
Friday's permit approval came on a 5-0 vote, with board member Linda Ackerman abstaining.
Ackerman also recused herself from discussions in December about the same Poseidon permit. Ackerman sits on the Metropolitan Water District as a representative of the Municipal Water District of Orange County. Both regional water agencies have supported the project and would be involved in purchasing or distributing water from the plant.
Additionally, her husband, Dick Ackerman, is an attorney for Nossaman, the law firm that Poseidon hired to assist with permit approvals. Officials from both Poseidon and Nossaman said the law firm hasn't represented Poseidon since December 2009. Also, the regional water board's attorney recently said Dick Ackerman's job does not present a conflict of interest for his wife.