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Amidst public protests and outstanding questions from regional water officials — about what kind of deal they’re getting into on a controversial desalination plant for Huntington Beach — a final decision on the project has been pushed to next week, Aug. 7

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board on Friday held a second day of public hearings before board members vote on the project proposal’s wastewater discharge permit. 

If the permit is approved, Poseidon Water, the company proposing the desal plant, would clear a major hurdle after two-decades of pushing it near the final stretch to getting it completely authorized for construction. 

The last step for the company would be to get another permit approved by the state Coastal Commission.

Proponents argue the $1 billion project would provide construction and operating jobs and a drought-proof source of local water. Opponents call it a boondoggle that would decimate nearby marine life sucked in with the seawater and unnecessarily hike local water rates.

Fully operational, the plant would produce 50 million gallons of desalted water per day. 

Yet there are still outstanding questions among board members over the need for the project, what kind of agreement regional water officials could be getting into, and whether Poseidon could even adequately address what many fear could be the project’s destruction of local ecosystems.

Much of board members’ concerns — mainly voiced by directors William von Blasingame and Daniel Selmi — surrounded Poseidon’s plan to conserve the site’s nearby Bolsa Chica wetlands and the fact that key details about how exactly it will go about that mitigation project still aren’t clear, since the full agreement between the agency and Poseidon and fine print haven’t been worked out yet. 

Selmi voiced further concern over whether the project lines up with recommendations for coastline desalination facilities in the state’s Ocean Plan, implemented in 2016, which outlines regulatory protections for the state’s ocean waters.

The project would suck in plankton, larvae and other marine life with the 106 million gallons of water taken in per day, and would discharge more than 56 million gallons of saltier water on a daily basis.

Selmi added: “I don’t think this mitigation comes close to what would be acceptable to me to fully mitigate the impacts this project is going to demonstrably have.”

Water agency staff estimate through their own calculations that the project’s environmental damage would equate to 112 acres. Part of Poseidon’s mitigation plan is to dredge — excavate mud and other material out of the water environment — the inlet of the wetlands and preserve it.

By doing that, Poseidon earns “mitigation credit” under the proposed permit agreement for offsetting its environmental impacts — 108 acres of credit to offset its total 112 acres in environmental damage. It will also create 5 acres of new wetlands in the nearby Fieldstone property and the oil pads.

Selmi took issue with the idea of dredging to “possibly prevent the inlet from closing” and Poseidon getting “a huge amount of credit just for doing that” while other regulatory agencies would require a “fair amount more” mitigation.

The water agency’s executive officer Hope Smythe confirmed later during the meeting: “we did consult with all those agencies, but as we discussed, not all those agencies are on the same page with our approach.”

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni responded that the calculation of affected land was “the extreme upper end” calculation that had been reached after previous iterations of estimated damage accounted for far fewer acres.

He warned that if the process was delayed too long, there’s a possibility that the inlet of the wetlands closes. Poseidon’s promises to finance the conservation of one of the state’s largest remaining saltwater marshes — an endeavor that local leaders have in the past struggled to pull funding together for — has won over Bolsa Chica conservationists like former Huntington Beach mayor Shirley Dettroff. 

“Make no mistake, the ocean inlet is the lifeblood of Bolsa Chica – nobody wins if the ocean inlet closes,” Maloni said at the meeting.

Director von Blasingame honed in on the issue that the final details of the agreement haven’t been agreed to yet and are conditional upon approval of the permit.

“I think it’s gotten lost in the sauce here,” he said. “They have proposed an outline of an agreement, our staff has not signed it, they want to wait to see how everything else works, and then at some point you come to an agreement.”

Director Tom Rivera agreed with fears that “a conditional agreement is high in the sky, that in the future people may not live up to that promise that was agreed upon.”

The reason no final plan is on the table, Maloni said, is “because it requires input from the property owner, Coastal Commission, Land Commission, Fishing Commission, Army Corps — those details are required prior to (construction and operation) … to ensure the mitigation project is fully permitted.”

Unlike Thursday night, public comments consisted largely of opposition to the project. 

“I’m in opposition to this project primarily because of the lack of need,” said one speaker, Connor Everts. “I hear a lot of people say they want this project without understanding what it really means.”

Agencies like the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), he said, “have more water in storage than ever, and last year it was the lowest water demand in 40 years, and it will be lower again today,” he said. 

Much of the arguments by Poseidon — and by officials at the Orange County Water District (OCWD), which manages north county’s groundwater basin — around need stem from a strategic desire to reduce the region’s reliance on rain-dependent imported water and instead provide a drought-proof local supply. 

Other opposed speakers like Fullerton resident Jose Trinidad Castaneda pointed to climate change factors like unpredictable sea level rise and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project’s operations. 

“Look at Newport Beach just earlier this month for a glimpse at what is to come,” he said, referring to the flooding of Balboa Peninsula earlier this month. 

There were still members of the public who showed up in support, like Huntington Beach resident Herb Kleeman who said the desal plant would “bring a lot of benefits to our city,” adding that during a drought earlier in the decade, he and other residents were put on “25% less water” and their rates went up.

Regional water staff, led by their executive officer Hope Smythe, will come back before the board on Friday next week ready to include any revisions to the “tentative order” — that is, the permit to be approved — requested by board members over their outstanding concerns. 

A vote is expected by the end of that day. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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