After two decades of intense debate, a controversial desalination plant that environmentalists fear will severely destroy the Huntington Beach coastline is nearing one of the final stages of approvals from regulators today.

The decision on a project that would produce 50 million daily gallons of potent water would come after a series of more recent hearings last month filled with public arguments for and against the project before the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency presiding over the Poseidon Water company’s permit proposal.

To watch the meeting, click here.

And it’s possible the water officials may require additional revisions to the proposed permit agreement with Poseidon, after water board members during meetings on the last two days of July voiced outstanding concerns about the project’s key details, environmental mitigation efforts, and a need for the facility.

Meanwhile activists are raising issues with water board members Kris Murray’s past ties to Poseidon and a few construction unions supporting the project, after she took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the groups for past political campaigns.

State campaign finance enforcement officials in an advice letter to the water agency said Murray’s Friday vote would be legal, because the contributions made to her campaigns happened more than 12 months before the scheduled vote.

Murray — who has in the past spoken in support of the project and desalination befroe her time on the water board — has in the past maintained she doesn’t have a predetermined position on the project, while activists want her to recuse herself, arguing there’s no way she has an open mind on the project.

Proponents during meetings on July 30 and July 31 — many of them elected officials and some Huntington Beach residents — said the project would reduce the region’s reliance on imported water, provide construction jobs, and wouldn’t be affected by droughts amid growing concerns over climate change’s impacts to water availability.

Opponents — many of them environmentalists — say details of the project are still iffy, the water isn’t needed, environmental mitigation measures promised by Poseidon aren’t adequate, and the facility could have devastating effects on local marine life sucked in with the seawater intake.

If approved, Poseidon would next need another permit approved by the state Coastal Commission. 

Directors like William Ruh voiced concern over the hiking of water rates — anticipated to go up from $3 to $6 as desalinated water costs more than imported — asking on July 30, “where does a working-class family get that kind of money?”

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

The Orange County Water District, which hopes to buy Poseidon’s water, says it expects the costs of imported and desalinated water to come closer together after a few years — when exactly that will happen isn’t clear.

Directors like William von Blasingame and Daniel Selmi were most vocal in their questioning of the company over the latest series of water board hearings.

Director Selmi on July 31 wondered if Poseidon’s mitigation efforts were adequate, or if it was getting too sweet a deal and receiving too much credit for minimal mitigation efforts.

Under Poseidon’s proposed permit agreement, the company would try to limit the loss of nearby marine life with fine mesh screens over the facility’s seawater intake pipe — which would suck in 106 million gallons of seawater and discharge more than 56 million daily gallons of saltier water (“brine”).

Director von Blasingame questioned why the mitigation plan agreement lacks full details.

“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.”

Maloni said that’s “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.”

The company would also work on preserving the Bolsa Chica Wetlands — one of the state’s largest remaining saltwater marshes — by dredging the inlet of Bolsa Chica to ensure water moves around the marsh effectively. 

Proponents of the project, along with some Bolsa Chica conservationists, see Poseidon and its finances as key to maintaining the wetlands after years of struggling to pull together local funding for conservation efforts.

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.

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni warned that if the process was delayed too long, there’s a possibility that the inlet of the wetlands closes.

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

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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