Rodriguez: The Environmental Racism Behind the Poseidon Desalination Proposal

As many Orange County residents are painfully aware, the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn laid bare many of the vulnerabilities among low-income communities, Latinx families, and people of color. The climate crisis, along with the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, is adding yet more pressure to those who have the fewest resources to cope, which is why we need to make sure that water remains affordable.

Water rate hikes can be devastating for small businesses. Bonifacio Hernández, who owns a professional power washing company servicing businesses in Santa Ana, could get his contracts slashed or even canceled as the businesses that hire him are hit with an increased water bill.

Supporters of the Huntington Beach desalination plant often claim that the added cost to the average household will be nominal. Poseidon’s track record shows otherwise. Families in Carlsbad, where Poseidon has built a desalination plant, have experienced rising costs each year that the plant has been operating. In 2010, the average water bill per household in San Diego was $885 per year. By 2018, three years after the Poseidon plant began operations, the average water bill per household in San Diego had skyrocketed to $1,416 per year, and water rates continue to rise. That same report found that 62 percent of low-income people in San Diego live in neighborhoods where the average water bill was unaffordable.

As a resident and an environmental justice advocate in Huntington Beach who has long studied the proposed Poseidon desalination plant, I know this plant isn’t needed and won’t produce affordable drinking water. Desalinated water is the most expensive and energy intensive water source according to the Orange County Water Reliability Study. As a recent UCLA study found, the Poseidon desalination plant would negatively impact the Human Right to Water and disadvantaged families in Orange County.

In addition to threatening water affordability, the Poseidon plant presents yet another environmental injustice, by fueling a crisis that disproportionately hurts communities of color: climate change. It takes a lot of energy to produce desalinated water, energy that will come from gas plants that burn fossil fuels, which, from fracking, piping, storage, to combustion, harms people and pollutes their neighborhoods.

If the Poseidon desalination project is built, it would unnecessarily expose the community to another half-century of emissions from the Alamitos Energy Center, a gas power plant that has no place in a clean energy future, where everyone’s health matters. To support the Poseidon project–and the dirty energy to operate the plant–is to perpetuate sacrifice zones for communities who live in pollution corridors. That any of Poseidon’s supporters would call themselves environmental justice advocates is as baffling as it is insulting.

We want clean, safe, affordable, and accessible water. And in Orange County, we can have it all. North Orange County has a huge groundwater basin, even in a long-term drought emergency, could supply enough water for a full decade–and that’s a conservative estimate that doesn’t account for regular replenishment through Santa Ana River water and purified wastewater. Stormwater and rainwater capture, greater water efficiency and water recycling also give us an abundance of options that are far more cost effective, with far fewer risks. When we get rain, much of it runs to the ocean. We can do a better job of capturing this water with rainwater harvesting and by encouraging more permeable surfaces so the water gets into the ground. In addition, grey water systems could be installed in homes, apartments, and commercial buildings so that we aren’t flushing our toilets with drinking water.

These sustainable water projects will create far more good jobs than a single large-scale desalination plant. For every million-dollar investment, water conservation creates 16.6 jobs, water recycling creates 12.6 jobs while desalination would only create 8.7 jobs, and only 60 percent of those jobs would be local.

Maybe that’s why of the 130 proposals included in Governor Newsom’s 2020 Water Resiliency Portfolio, only two include desalination. One says, “Residential water use will become increasingly efficient, given new state standards and local investments to recycle water, capture stormwater, and desalt ocean and brackish water.” The other states, “Consider new desalination projects according to existing state criteria including the Water Board’s Ocean Plan and the Coastal Act.” Neither are ringing endorsements of desalination plants, but rather, a mere mention as something to consider after all other options are exhausted. The governor keeps pushing for nature-based water solutions that protect biodiversity while fighting climate change – Poseidon’s desalination proposal would do quite the opposite.

Oscar Rodriguez is a resident of Huntington Beach and a co-founder of OakView Comunidad. He is currently a candidate for city council.

 

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