Last year the phrase The Human Right to Water “splashed” into the discussion on the proposed Poseidon desalination plant. Let’s take a quick look at the history of this phrase before we engage in a more detailed examination as to why we don’t need the plant.

About 12 years ago the idea of the Human Right to Water (HRTW) bubbled up when the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee launched a year-long educational campaign on the HRTW.

The first ‘wave” of recognition occurred in 2010, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that recognized the HRTW!

The idea “flooded” the California legislature on September 25, 2012, when Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 685. Legislatively, California became the first state in the nation to recognize the HRTW.

The third wave splashed into the Santa Ana Regional Water Board, in Orange County, CA last fall when Director William von Blasingame asked staff for clarification as to whether the HRTW can be incorporated into their decision making.

Previously, the board did not evaluate the impact a project would have on ratepayer’s rates or their ability to pay. During his tenure, Director William von Blasingame frequently raised ratepayer and taxpayer concerns. You may “recall” that Governor Newsom removed him from the board and replaced him with someone who appears to be dramatically less consumer-oriented.

For about 20 years the zombie Poseidon project has been haunting Orange County. It threatens us with the prospect of outrageously expensive water bills in order to produce 50 million gallons a day of unneeded water. It wants to do so using the most expensive methods known to the commercial water industry.

Poseidon is Poised to Cost Us All a Whole Lot of Money

The Poseidon proposal is not only extremely expensive but it is quite unnecessary. If we don’t take action to stop it now, our children, grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren may end up paying as much as $6300 each through increased water bills over the course of the 35 year “take or pay “contract.

Why Poseidon?

The Poseidon project was designed to do one thing and one thing only. No, that one thing is not to provide clean and affordable drinking water.

If you guessed that Poseidon was designed to generate profits for their investors, stockholders and board members, then you are on the right track. They hope to do this by selling very expensive water to Orange County, over a long period of time, even though we don’t need it.

Ratepayers are NOT Investors and Should Not Be Forced to Subsidize the Project

When Poseidon first came to town they proudly announced that their plant would be built with private money. So, you might think that this multinational for-profit corporation would be willing to take on the financial risks necessary to build their own plant?  

But No! If you live between Ventura County and the Mexican border you most likely get your water through the Metropolitan Water District (MET). Today Poseidon wants virtually all 19 million people who are part of the MET to provide $400,000,000 in subsidies through increased water bills

Poseidon would also like to use econometric alchemy to transform rate payers into “third class investors.” 

There are six reasons why ratepayers are not investors.

  1. Each month, millions of ratepayers will pay increased bills but won’t get stock ownership in return for their increased payments
  2. Ratepayers cannot benefit from stock appreciation
  3. Ratepayers won’t get stock dividends
  4. Ratepayers won’t have voting rights that stock ownership provides.
  5. Actual investors can choose when, how much and whether or not to invest. Ratepayers have no choice and must pay the bloated bills if they want water.
  6. Investors can decide when to sell and get out of their investment. The only choice available to ratepayers is to keep on paying inflated bills.

It is the old story of socializing the risks and privatizing the profits. Poseidon limits their financial outlay while still reaping the benefits. And ratepayers are deprived of the rights they should have as investors.

From an econometric perspective it artificially lowers Poseidon’s costs and creates an inaccurate financial picture of the corporation’s financial strength. Since Poseidon’s Carlsbad water is already 440% more expensive than Orange County’s groundwater, these cost inaccuracies create an artificially rosy picture for a company that wants to over-produce water using the most expensive methods known to the commercial water industry.

Hidden Taxes or Unnecessary Fees

Actually, the Poseidon proposal has two unnecessary “hidden taxes”.  The first hidden tax is based on Poseidon’s corporate structure. Because they are a multinational for-profit corporation, (instead of a municipal utility such as the O.C. Sanitation District or the O.C. Water District), they need to charge higher rates in order to pay their investors, directors and shareholders. This structure was chosen to provide long-term profits to actual investors, stockholders and directors by increasing ratepayer’s bills.

The second “secret tax” is based on the “over size” of the plant. Poseidon wants to build a plant that is larger than the region would reasonably need in order to generate the profit margin they desire. A “right sized” plant, operated as a municipal utility, would cost rate payers less than a plant that is too large. Plus, it could be turned off when it is not needed. There would be no “take or pay” contract.

Reverse Osmosis, Salt and “Brine”

Balance matters even for the simplest things in life such as water and oxygen. If you drink too much water, you can get water poisoning and die, or drown. Too much oxygen for premature babies can cause blindness.

If Poseidon gets to pump its salt back into the ocean, it will do so at a rate of 5 tons a minute. And 5.2 million pounds of salt per year from Poseidon’s discharge will change the ecosystem. They mix it with sea water to make “brine”.

R.O. is a very energy intensive process and uses enough electricity to power 35,000 homes. The climate crisis must be addressed and in these times of reducing greenhouse gasses, building a plant that generates more greenhouse gasses to generate water that is not needed, takes several giant steps in the wrong direction.

R.O. uses high pressure, to push water through membranes that have decreasingly smaller and smaller holes. The holes eventually get small enough that they can exclude various salt molecules. In addition, it also produces a whole lot of waste by-products that proponents mix with seawater and euphemistically refer to as “brine”.

 “Brine” is a lot more than pickle juice and you sure don’t want to cook your turkey in it. It can be loaded with lots of chemicals, heavy metals and sometimes copper and chlorine compounds are added.

Worldwide, that translates to 51.8 billion cubic meters of brine each year, which is enough to cover all of Florida, a foot deep.

Significantly increasing salt levels, even for saltwater critters, can cause them to die (think of the aptly named Dead Sea). During the hearings, I asked one of Poseidon’s environmental experts what will happen to echinoderms (starfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, etc.) who can’t escape the plume. He explained they will “cease to thrive.”

Poseidon’s latest “solution” to the salt mess is not to reduce the amount of salt but to mix it with water and quickly jet it into the ocean at very high speed. Sort of a concentrated, fairly toxic, potentially deadly, high speed, salt ray.

Question- How much salt will Poseidon produce over the life of the plant?

Answer – 183,960,000,000 pounds of salt over its 35 year life span

(Yes, they want to dump 183 billion pounds of concentrated salt into the ocean)

Don’t We Need More Water?

The job of the Water District of Orange County’s is to forecast water needs and provide water to Orange County. When our own water district says we don’t need Poseidon’s outrageously expensive water, we can believe them.

Poseidon has a twin plant that has been operating in Carlsbad, CA and Orange County is in a significantly better position than Carlsbad for the following reasons.

  1. OC is sitting on a huge fresh water aquifer.  This aquifer stretches down to 2500 feet below mean sea level.
  2. We have another huge source of fresh water that Carlsbad does not; the Santa Ana River.
  3. The groundwater replenishment system not only provides fresh water, but recharges the aquifer daily. An additional feature of this program is that it has halted the sea water intrusion into the aquifer.
  4. Water needs have shrunk over the past 20 years even though population has grown. This is due to low flush toilets, drip irrigation, replacing lawns and water hungry plants, flow regulators, etc.
  5. In April of 2021 the expansion of the Ground Water Replenishment system began. It will provide an additional 30 million gallons/day in 2023 significantly cheaper than Poseidon could.
  6. The Carson water recycling plant is being built to provide 40 million gallons a day and plans on expanding to 150 million gallons a day. They want OC to take 50 million gallons a day.

Is There Another Way to Tell if Poseidon’s Water is Needed?

Yes, look at what the potential buyers are doing. After almost 20 years of trying to pre-sell this water to other water agencies, Poseidon still doesn’t have enough buyers!

We live in a desert and the region’s water agencies were designed to take care of the water needs in their districts. Yet these very water agencies find there are better options than Poseidon. Still Poseidon wants to go forward and has a novel approach to dealing with the water they want to over produce. Bet you can’t guess what it is?

Pump It Into the Ground?

Poseidon wants to produce more water than the region needs because producing more expensive water provides them greater profits. The want to force the citizens of Orange County to purchase their extremely expensive, over-produced water and pump it into the ground!

As you know from the above (Don’t We Need More Water), pumping water into the ground is exactly what the Ground Water Replenishment System has been doing for over 12 years and they are expanding by 30 million gallons a day!

The Cost of Poseidon’s Water

Poseidon’s water will likely be 440% the current cost of groundwater in Orange County!

I know that is hard to believe, but here are the facts. The current Ground Water Price in Orange County is $700 for an Acre Foot of water. The current Poseidon Price in Carlsbad is $ 2830 for an Acre Foot of water.

But Wait, That’s Not All!    There is a 2-3% escalator clause built into the contract, each year!

What Works Better and is Less Expensive?

Due to the expense and environmental impact of desal, it should be an option of last resort. There are three alternatives that are much less expensive and should be priorities before we spend another dime on desal.

1. Conservation – Conserving a gallon of water is many times cheaper than having to produce that water.

2. Storm Water Capture– The next cheapest alternative is storm water capture and there hasn’t been a new storm water program built in over 20 years!

3. Water Recycling– It works and does so at a low cost to ratepayers.  As was mentioned before, when the Carson plant is built out, they want Orange County to take 50 million gallons per day at approximately 1/3 of the cost of Poseidon’s water.

Shouldn’t we let the “Invisible Hand” Regulate the Water Market Place?

It’s time for a tiny bit of economic theory. The invisible hand is a metaphor for the unseen forces that move the free market economy.

Together, all of us comprise the Invisible Hand of the Free Market. Following our own self-interests (to avoid huge water bills) have a chance to shape the marketplace and stop Poseidon. Plus, as we covered earlier, Poseidon is not working in the free market; they want ratepayers to provide subsidies!

Without sufficient government oversight, the invisible hand will give ratepayers a quite visible middle finger in the form of higher water rates. Let’s review two examples.

You may remember in 2000–2001, Californians experienced a large-scale electricity crisis, comprised of multiple huge blackouts. Even though demand was 28 GW and California had an installed generating capacity of 45 GW, prices and rates skyrocketed due to market manipulations and capped retail electricity prices.

In order to generate enormous profits, energy companies created an artificial shortage. Energy traders took power plants offline for maintenance in days of peak demand to increase the price. Traders were then able to sell power at premium prices. Wholesale electricity prices skyrocketed 800% during 8 months in 2000.

A few cities suffered no market manipulation; their ratepayers saw no increase in rates or predatory pricing. What was the “secret sauce” for stable rates; well-regulated municipal utilities.

Earlier This Year in Texas

Meanwhile back at the ranch, in Texas, we have another dramatic example as to how well the “invisible hand” operated during this year’s deep freeze when some electric bills rocketed as high as $17,000!!  Electrical shareholders and executives were so thrilled with the skyrocketing prices that they said the quiet part out loud. Jerry Jones, an investor said ”We hit the Jackpot”.

But due to greed, poor planning, etc., once again the invisible hand gave the invisible finger to ratepayers through dramatically inflated bills.

Can This Happen to Water?

Water is a different animal entirely, for without water, for even a few days, people die. It’s much harder to delay drinking water for a few days than it is to keep the television off for a few days.

Droughts don’t last a week or two but sometimes can last for years.

Quite frankly, we literally cannot afford to have multinational for-profit corporations involved in activities that should be run by municipal utilities.

So friends, it is up to you, and me, and the people we talk to.

It is time to write letters, pass out fliers on street corners, write messages on social media, make phone calls, call your local and state representatives, send e-mail to the Santa Ana Regional Water Board and sign up to speak! Tell them to Stop Zombie Poseidon.

The next meeting of the Santa Ana Regional Board will be Friday, April 23rd beginning at 9:00. Here is the Zoom link you’ll need if you’d like to sign in to speak:

Today we covered just the tip of the Poseidon iceberg. We mostly covered the demand for water and Poseidon’s pricing.

We did not cover:

  • The environmental impact of the plant.
  • The proposed and absurd mitigation measures which are supposedly designed to eliminate the damage they do to the ecosystem in the HB area by performing remediation in Palos Verdes?
  • The impact climate change and sea level rise will have on this plant,

Mark Twain allegedly said: Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.

According to Mr. Samuel Clements (Twain’s actual name), we have to get into this fight if we want reasonable water rates for future generations. We cannot let an international corporation provide water that is 440% more than what our current groundwater costs.

Randy Kokal writes about things that concern him and has published over 30 articles and editorials. He’d taught at UCI for 12 years and worked with nonprofit organizations for decades in development and as an executive director to raise over $51 million. He’s been the Chair of the HB Planning Commission where he presided over 40 hours of hearings on the Poseidon project.

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