Over a decade ago, Poseidon Water came to Orange County and began applying for permits to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach to turn sea water into drinking water. The process stalled for years. The proposed plant would only produce about eight percent of Orange County’s water needs, would be nearly twice as expensive as other water, required a massive amount of energy and had numerous environmental impacts. To many decision-makers, it seemed like an option only worthy of consideration as a last resort; definitely not worth the billion-dollar plus price tag for ratepayers.
Then Governor Brown declared a state of emergency and the California drought made international headlines. All of a sudden, “last resort” options moved to the top of the list. Orange County Water District agreed to work on a term sheet to buy Poseidon’s Water if all the necessary state agencies gave Poseidon the green light to build. Currently, Poseidon only has a few more steps to obtain final approval, but a lot has changed in the last year.
When California implemented mandatory water conservation and offered incentives for water-wise upgrades, Orange County residents and businesses took action. We traded our lawns for drought-tolerant gardens, ditched wasteful habits and upgraded our infrastructure with better technology. By 2015, we lowered our annual water use by 25 percent, setting a statewide example of the kind of conservation possible.
While Poseidon’s sizeable team of lawyers and lobbyists continued to fight for permits, Orange County lowered its water use by 160,000 acre-feet of water per year, the amount of water that three of Poseidon’s plants could produce. Then the Municipal Water District of Orange County looked into the need for desalinated water more closely. They found that, thanks to an outdated measurement method, the amount of water Orange County Water District projected they would need in the future was quite higher than the reality.
When the Municipal Water District of Orange County did their own research, they produced a number 90,000 acre feet lower than Poseidon’s original projections for desalinated water needed. That’s about the same amount of water two Poseidon plants could produce each year. In total, that’s five Poseidon plants too many, not one too few.
This isn’t a problem for Poseidon—it’s a problem for Orange County ratepayers. Poseidon’s contract requires Orange County Water District to buy every gallon of high-priced water Poseidon produces for 50 years, whether Orange County residents use the water or not.
San Diego got into the same bad deal with Poseidon a couple years ago. Now Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad is the single-largest energy user in San Diego County and pumps out around 54,000 acre feet of drinking water from the ocean every year. That water is then promptly deposited into a reservoir, where it sits unused, evaporating at a rate of eight to ten percent per year. Meanwhile, San Diego’s ratepayers pay for every drop, including the billion dollars required to build the plant.
Poseidon only needs a few more permits before they can cash another giant check from Orange County ratepayers, too. And the water they make, that we don’t use, won’t just sit in a reservoir. It will be pumped into our underground aquifer, degrading its water quality and making the ground water more expensive to treat and use.
This isn’t complicated. It’s simply a bad deal for everyone but Poseidon. You don’t need a business degree to know not to buy 50 years worth of a high priced supply with no demand available. Why are our decision-makers not only considering this deal, but helping to fast track the permit process? Poseidon stands to make billions of dollars from Orange County ratepayers if its Huntington Beach plant is approved. With billions to gain, investors don’t mind spending millions on an army of lobbyists to ensure it happens.
The permits aren’t signed yet. Orange County still has a chance to avoid this bad deal. There’s one thing that can stop piles of money worth of Poseidon lobbyists, and it’s completely free: our voice.
In September, the Coastal Commission is holding a public hearing before approving Poseidon’s last permit needed to begin building. Come and tell the Coastal Commission that you refuse to pay what is essentially a tax to Poseidon’s stockholders and executives. Stand up for common sense solutions for your future and the future of Orange County.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly asserted Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad pumps out around 70,000 acre feet of drinking water from the ocean every year. We regret the error.
Garry Brown, Executive Director, Orange County Coastkeeper
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