At a series of upcoming meetings, a “citizens advisory committee” will review proposed negotiation points for the Poseidon ocean desalination project, before a possible adoption by the Orange County Water District board on April 30, under a plan approved by board members Wednesday night.
The meetings, which are scheduled for March 26, April 9 and April 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the water district’s headquarters, will likely serve as venues for claims by supporters and opponents to be vetted publicly.
Proponents argue the proposed plant would provide a much-needed local water source in times of drought or reductions in imported water supplies.
Opponents, meanwhile, criticize it as an unnecessary, environmentally-damaging project that costs far more than other alternatives.
If the privately-operated project wins approvals and gets financing, the plant would be built along Huntington Beach's coast and convert seawater into as much as 50 million gallons per day of drinkable water.
That water would then be sold to public water agencies and delivered to local residents and businesses.
Well over 120 people attended Wednesday night's board meeting, where about two dozen people spoke during public comments, the vast majority of whom opposed the project.
Critics cited environmental and cost concerns, and questioned why other water supply options aren’t being considered in the Poseidon discussions.
For the first 10 years, the desalination water would cost at least 20 percent more than imported water, under the proposed negotiation points, known as a draft term sheet.
Irvine Ranch Water District board member Peer Swan paraphrased a letter from his board urging OCWD to study how the project's financial impacts and water supply benefits compare to other options.
“We encourage OCWD to initiate an evaluation of the Poseidon project in comparison to other” water supply alternatives, said Swan.
Others, including representatives of unions and business groups, supported the project as a much-needed local source of water in times of shortages in imported water. They urged board members to proceed as quickly as possible.
“We need to add desal to our water portfolio. We need to do it soon,” said Doug Mangione of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 441.
He noted a recent determination by a NASA scientist that California has only one year of water supply left at current rates.
“Historically societies have risen and fallen” based on reliability of water supplies, he added.
Wednesday’s meeting was the water board’s first consideration of negotiation points that could ultimately lead to a 50-year contract to buy Poseidon’s water.
Board member Jan Flory questioned why, if the project is really about water supply reliability, the committee wasn’t being tasked with also looking at other options.
“I don’t know how this project can be evaluated without discussing alternatives, and there’s no discussion in any of this about having the Poseidon project stand up against other alternatives,” Flory said, prompting applause from much of the audience.
Fellow board member Phil Anthony echoed her sentiment.
“I think your comments are very sensible,” said Anthony.
But board members Steve Sheldon and Cathy Green disagreed.
“I’m not so sure this panel of citizens we are impanelling to do this” has the “qualifications” to evaluate alternatives, said Sheldon.
“To take Peer’s 30 years of information and expect regular citizens to digest that…I just question if we’re creating a very unsuccessful outcome” that no one will be happy with, added Sheldon, who was paid at least $10,000 as a consultant to Poseidon in 2012, according to a financial disclosure he filed.
“I’m afraid this is just one way of stopping this process,” said Green, pointing out that the committee’s formal name is the Ocean Desalination Citizens Advisory Committee.
“I think that pretty much says what they’re supposed to do, where the direction is,” Green said of the name.
Flory ultimately failed to get enough support from her colleagues to expand the committee's purview.
Some residents criticized the water district for opting not to vet the committee members, or require them to file economic interest disclosures – the same kind that revealed Sheldon’s payments from Poseidon.
“I do not appreciate the lack of transparency regarding the citizens advisory committee,” said southeast Huntington Beach resident Milt Dardis.
He questioned whether the committee is “here just to rubber-stamp this project for Poseidon.”
The water district’s staff, meanwhile, said the committee members aren’t subject to the state’s Political Reform Act, which requires the disclosures, and that biases both in support of and against the project are to be expected.
Under the draft negotiations points, the water district would pay Poseidon 120 percent of the price of treated imported water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, plus additional fees that currently cost about $80 to $90 per acre-foot.
An acre foot is considered to be what two typical households use in a year.
After 10 years, the price would be 115 percent of MWD’s rate plus the other charges, and would eventually scale down to MWD’s rate after 40 years.
Additionally, OCWD would be responsible for funding and building a pipeline and distribution system to get the water from Poseidon’s plant to local water agencies. That’s currently estimated to cost between $70 million to $90 million to build.