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The 20-year battle between seawater desalters and Orange County environmentalists and community activists neared a turning point Thursday, the first in a series of final public hearings around a Huntington Beach desalination plant proposal before local regulators.

Hearings and public comments at the state regional water board started Thursday, are continuing today, and could continue to Aug. 7, if needed, with a vote on the required permits for the $1 billion water desalting project planned at the end of the hearings.

Proposed by the Poseidon Water company, the project has become one of the largest battles over Orange County’s coastline in decades.

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

Approval by state regional water board members would be one of Poseidon’s final steps toward making their project happen. The last hurdle to clear would be a permit from the state Coastal Commission. 

More than 200 public commenters lined up to weigh in Thursday, but not before hours of discussion among board members, some of whom grilled Poseidon representatives and regional water agency staff.

One of the main questions Thursday continued to surround a need for the project, which would put out 50 million gallons of desalted water a day. 

Poseidon and the project’s supporters argue climate change will usher in greater risk of low water supply due to droughts. Thus the solution would be to suck in sea water, desalt it, and make the county self-sufficient on a locally-sourced supply. 

“It’s like insurance for us,” said John Kennedy, the Orange County Water District’s executive director of engineering and water resources, at the meeting. 

Yet he admitted — and board members pointed out — desalinated water is more expensive than imported. 

Untreated imported water costs around $1,100 per acre-foot of water, while Poseidon’s desalted water is estimated by 2022 to cost $2,250 per acre-foot.

Credit: POSEIDON WATER

But only initially, Kennedy said, until the costs of both sources eventually “come closer together.” When that will happen isn’t clear.

Board director William Von Blasingame, specifically, was persistent in his questioning of staff and company representatives on why mitigation plans aren’t complete, and why the measures included so far are based on data from more than a decade ago. 

Staff argued that a state “Ocean Plan,” implemented in 2016, outlining regulatory protections for marine life allowed for a dated study from 2003 to be used and that there were parameters worked into it at the time to account for any year-after-year changes to sea conditions and variability.

Still, Blasingame contended, “in 17 years a whole lot of things can happen to the ocean.”

Staff said to do a new study reflecting more recent ocean conditions would take time. To that, board member Kris Murray said, “I guess we can throw the baby out with the bathwater and start over, but then what’s the point of having professional staff and years and years and years of study and recommendations to be made?”

Responding to Blasingame’s questions over why mitigation plans aren’t completed, Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said “elements of this mitigation project have only come together more recently at the request of different agency staff. And we have accepted all of these requests and recommendations.”

There’s also debate over what the plant means for Huntington Beach’s Latino neighborhoods and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. 

For a company that pushes the project as “climate resilient,” local organizer Oscar Rodriguez asked board members why Poseidon felt the need to push the project with the help of paid lobbyists, which include former California senator Barbara Boxer, who also spoke in support of the project Thursday. 

“For many of us, we are unable to hire even one lobbyist, and that is what makes this project tough to even consider supporting,” said Rodriguez, who co-founded Latino neighborhood advocacy group Oak View CommUNIDAD. 

The project would prove to be “catastrophic“ for low-income residents faced with inevitable water rate hikes, said Adriana Maestas with Latino environmentalist group Azul.

The issue similarly stoked concern by board members like chair William Ruh. 

“Part of our regulatory obligation revolves around the human right to water,” he said. Knowing water rates would go up as Poseidon starts operations, he said, “where does a working-class family get that kind of money?”

Those who voiced support for the project Thursday — many of them local elected officials and those serving on the boards for local water agencies and districts — said the project has had enough time for arduous review over 20 years. 

“I’ve heard some say that this project is being rushed through,” said former Huntington Beach mayor Joe Carchio, adding he “can’t imagine a project” that’s similarly gone through this kind of review process and said critics want to draw out the regulatory process to the extent it becomes “economically infeasible.”

Huntington Beach planning commissioner Michael Grant said “we sit adjacent to the world’s largest reservoir that is never empty, trying to plan for future droughts and climate change.”

“We are also in a world of uncertainty,” he added, “uncertain budgets, uncertain changes. Let’s embrace some of the certainty.”

Other supporters see the project as key to the preservation of one of the state’s largest saltwater wetlands, Bolsa Chica, because Poseidon would be on the hook for financing the wetlands’ upkeep efforts if the project’s approved. 

After years of “begging” for the adequate resources to maintain the wetlands, former Huntington Beach mayor Shirley Detloff told board members “you now have a plan that will guarantee the long term preservation enhancement in the restoration of Bolsa Chica.” 

“What an opportunity to give this resource the needed security of knowing that future generations will always have (the wetlands),” said Detloff, who’s also part of the Amigos de Bolsa Chica conservancy group.

Other local groups like the Bolsa Chica Land Trust are more on the fence about the project, even with its mitigation promises. 

“We at BCLT are very concerned about threats to our coastal environment, including the impacts projected to be caused directly from a fully functioning Poseidon desalinization plant.   The ocean is the life blood of Bolsa Chica, and we will not support any project that threatens our ocean wildlife,” the group states on its website.

Other elected officials speaking in support of the project included 72nd state Assemblyman Tyler Diep, and through a video played at the meeting, Santa Ana Councilman Vicente Sarmiento and Westminster Mayor Tri Ta.

Only three elected officials spoke out against the project: OCWD board director Kelly Rowe and Irvine Ranch Water District members Doug Reinhart and Peer Swan.

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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