Friday, June 11, 2010 | A resurrected desalination project in Huntington Beach is on track to become Orange County’s first large-scale plant to turn seawater into drinking water.

Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources plans to begin construction sometime next year on a 50-million-gallon-per-day desalting works alongside the AES power plant on Pacific Coast Highway.

The company is in the final stages of obtaining city and state approvals for the project. And though its desalination projects in San Diego and in Tampa, Fla., have been beset with opposition or controversy, the company’s road in Orange County has thus far been relatively smooth.

A required public hearing yesterday on a new version of the project’s environmental-impact report drew just seven people. And only one, Jason Pyle, who said he lives near the proposed plant, had a comment.

Pyle said the study of noise associated with the project was poorly done and doesn’t show accurate noise levels during the hours people normally try to sleep.

No one disputes that water-short Southern California needs to become less dependant on imported water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. But environmentalists rail against desal plants because they are power hogs and have damaged coastal habitats.

Opponents of the Huntington Beach plant had asked the city for more time to study a revision to an earlier, approved EIR. But Huntington Beach officials denied the request, saying the 45 days allowed by state law were enough.

After Thursday’s hearing, Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said the desalination plant “is environmentally benign” and suggested the low turnout indicated public support for the project.

“I think after a while some people have come to realize it’s a project that’s needed,” Maloni said.

The City Council isn’t scheduled to hold its public hearing on the environmental-impact report until late summer or early fall.

A Controversial Solution

There is, as of yet, no large-scale seawater desalination drinking water plant in operation in the U.S., although there are many throughout the world.

Poseidon has been working on a Huntington Beach plant for more than six years. If completed, it will supply about 8 percent of Orange County’s water supply or enough for 300,000 county residents, according to Poseidon.

The company hopes to begin construction next year and have the plant running by 2014.

Most of the Poseidon attention, until recently, was focused on a controversial sister project in San Diego County, the Carlsbad desalination plant.

That project broke ground in November after the state Coastal Commission overrode staff recommendations and gave it the OK to go ahead. It was a project marked by lawsuits and opposition driven by concern for what desalination might do to fish and other ocean life and the capability of Poseidon to build and run a public drinking water plant.

Just yesterday, the Carlsbad project became caught up in more San Diego controversy. According to the North County Times, Poseidon said the Carlsbad project is “not financeable” now because there isn’t enough money involved to pay off debts and attract investors.

Poseidon’s sole venture into U.S. desalination before Carlsbad was a troubled plant in Florida’s Tampa Bay. One of the company’s contractors went bankrupt and the local water agency took over from Poseidon. The result was a problem-plagued project that still has participants on both sides disputing what went wrong.

Maloni said to alleviate concerns that such a thing might happen in California, the Carlsbad contract specifically prohibits future city leaders from taking over the plant in the event Poseidon runs into trouble. Poseidon now takes all of the financial risks, he said.

“What we learned in Carlsbad will definitely help us in Huntington Beach,” Maloni said.

As a private company, Poseidon doesn’t have to publicly disclose its ownership. It has said one of its investors is a subsidiary of GE, and a brochure on its local website says “Poseidon Resources’ largest shareholder is E.M. Warburg Pincus & Company, one of the largest private equity investment firms in the world.”

Maloni said Poseidon is owned by the GE subsidiary and “some other small investors.”

The company maintains an active political presence in Sacramento and last year spent $118,389.70 on lobbying activity, according to records in the Secretary of State’s office. So far this year, Poseidon’s lobbying costs are $56,400.64.

A New Regulatory Landscape

The company must change its environmental-impact report for the city because last month the state Water Resources Control Board adopted new regulations for power plants that draw cooling water from the ocean. It has been shown that hot water spewed back into the ocean by the plants kills a large amount of sea life.

Another issue is the high concentrations of salt left in coastal waters by the desalination process. To mitigate the problem of super-salty water being returned to the ocean, Poseidon had planned to reuse water that the adjacent power plant uses to cool its operations.

The power plant requires substantially more seawater than the desalination process, said Maloni. Some of the water used to cool the power plant would be purified for drinking water.

Other leftover seawater from the power plant would be mixed with the concentrated brine that is a byproduct of desalination. The diluted brine could safely go back into the ocean without harming sea life, Maloni said.

In the first years that the desalination plant operates next to the power plant, the two could share water. But by about 2020 the power plant is required to stop using the ocean cooling system. Maloni said Poseidon is seeking permission to draw the water it needs from the ocean.

He said the pressure required to draw in seawater for desalination isn’t nearly as harmful to aquatic life as that required by the power plant, and the impact would be minimal.

To turn seawater into safe drinking water, ocean water is pumped at extremely high pressure through membranes with holes so tiny that bacteria and viruses, as well as salt, are left behind.

The process traditionally has been too expensive for general use because of the high amounts of costly electricity needed to force the water through the membranes. But as technology has improved and as the costs of importing water from distant locations has gone up, the cost difference between the two sources of water has grown narrower.

The state Water Resources Control Board may begin regulating desalination plants and how much brine they can discharge into the ocean. But work on that won’t start until later this year, said Jonathan Bishop, the state water board’s chief deputy.

Any plants affected by the upcoming regulations will be given time to comply.

Before breaking ground next year, Poseidon also must get permits from the state Lands Commission and the Coastal Commission.

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