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State regional water officials have again delayed a decision on a controversial seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach, instead placing further requirements on the project’s company to reckon with the facility’s anticipated environmental damage.

A vote on the permit for the project — which would produce 50 million gallons of desalted ocean water per day — was expected Friday. The next step for the project’s Carlsbad-based company, Poseidon Water, would have been approval by the California Coastal Commission.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Agency board directors anticipate returning to the issue on Sept. 17.

Friday’s delay comes after agency staff — responding to board members’ outstanding concerns about the project — agreed to revise the permit agreement with Poseidon to include requirements that the company perform more environmental restoration to make up for the plant’s damage, instead of mere preservation.

Yet water board directors like Daniel Selmi — unsatisfied by the revisions water agency staff put forward at the start of Friday’s meeting — agreed to send the agreement back to the drawing board again to require even more restoration work be put into the plan. 

It’s unclear where along the coast, or how, Poseidon would perform that environmental restoration work, though board members said additional restoration projects should be prioritized at Bolsa Chica or the section of the ocean most impacted by the facility’s seawater intake of 106 million gallons per day.

Additionally, board members denied staff’s recommendation to lift a requirement that Poseidon can’t begin operating its plant until it completely fleshes out its plans to make up for the project’s environmental impacts (the “mitigation plan”) and obtains all the permits for those plans.

Poseidon had so far agreed to finance conservation efforts around the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, one of California’s largest remaining saltwater marshes, and other areas along the coast, though the details aren’t fully figured out.

The absence of those fine details became a main point of contention during the meeting, when staff told board members it was Poseidon’s responsibility to go out and collect data and the right studies to put together a full mitigation plan, but that the company hadn’t done so.

“This is where I’m coming from,” said board director William von Blasingame, who throughout the panel’s July 30 and 31 hearings raised this same issue repeatedly. “This has been months, years, and my understanding is staff has been available, the state’s people have been available … They (Poseidon) have to do the studies. That hasn’t been done — nothing has been done. They’ve given outlines, but not a fully complete plan.”

Responding to those comments, Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni on Friday said the mitigation plan depends on approvals by various local agencies with a stake in what happens to the wetlands and the coast surrounding the project. 

The company also hasn’t completed its plan, Maloni said, because the state regional water agency’s requirements around the project’s permit keep changing. He pointed to examples like staff’s revised recommendations Friday morning around the amount of required restoration versus preservation.

“The reason we don’t have final details isn’t because Poseidon is unwilling to provide them, it’s because we can’t,” he said. “We can’t advance it because the earth under our feet keeps shifting.”

The decision to delay the permit approval happened early on in the meeting. The rest of the eight-hour meeting was spent going into other issues surrounding the project, such as the hiking of water costs and whether there’s an actual need for the project itself.

Those debates have raged around the planned facility for years. 

Proponents argue the project would provide construction jobs and reduce the region’s reliance on imported water — especially important, they say, because climate change will bring about more droughts and deplete imported water availability.

Opponents, in turn, say the argument around shifting reliance from imported to desalinated water doesn’t necessitate need for the project, and call the $1 billion project a “boondoggle” that would damage local marine life ecosystems. 

Additionally, critics and board members continued to voice concern Friday over what would be a hike in water rates for residents of central and north county cities as a result of the project.

Board directors asked staff to get more information on how the project would hold up under state law requiring access to clean, safe, and affordable water for all California households, especially those in low-income and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Currently, 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, John Kennedy, the Orange County Water District’s executive director of engineering and water resources, said at a July 30 meeting.

The 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.

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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