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Questions have been raised over California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political maneuvers to push a controversial seawater desalination plant proposed for the Huntington Beach coastline.
Critics say their concerns about the actual need for the project and its potential environmental effects remain.
The company pushing it, Poseidon Water, remains steadfast in its intent to build a plant that would suck in 100 million gallons of seawater daily and make half of it drinkable.
And earlier this month, Poseidon scored a win when the Third District California Court of Appeal upheld the State Lands Commission’s 2017 approval of Poseidon’s lease for the proposed Project, despite opponents’ attempts to overturn it.
Poseidon in a statement following the ruling hailed it as demonstrating a need for the project in terms of Orange County’s water demand, marking the seventh time since 2005 that the project has withstood a legal challenge.
It all comes amid what’s considered to be a final juncture for the project’s approval, as its needed permits are currently being considered for approval by the Governor-appointed Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board.
That board’s next hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, April 23. If the board approves the permits, the project then goes for a final say from the state Coastal Commission.
Meanwhile, Poseidon wants to change certain parts of the project’s needed permit, which was drafted by staff at the Santa Ana water board agency and awaits final approval by the agency’s Governor-appointed board of directors.
Among other things, Poseidon wants to strike the draft permit’s requirement that the company first nail down its plan to mitigate any of the project’s expected environmental damage before the plant can begin discharging wastewater.
That proposed revision to the permit, and others, have been criticized by Poseidon foes — namely, activists and environmentalists, some of whom say that while they don’t oppose the idea of desalination itself, Poseidon’s proposal is too big, destructive and unnecessary.
Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni, in an email, said the discharge prohibition as it’s currently written “would prevent construction financing from occurring in a successful manner in a reasonable period of time, thus making the project infeasible based on the state’s definition of feasibility.”
Maloni, who has appeared at water board hearings on the project on behalf of the company, said the alternative his company has put forward “would allow a feasible project to advance while addressing the Board’s desire that the mitigation obligations be completed in a timely manner and remain strictly enforceable.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Newsom has been tied to supporting Poseidon’s proposal at the state-level, replacing a vocal critic of the project from the local water board that his office appoints, which is currently presiding over the proposal’s needed permit, ahead of the board’s vote.
Newsom was also photographed at the now-controversial French Laundry dinner party, in the throes of the pandemic, with a known lobbyist for Poseidon.
And it was later revealed that one of Newsom’s top appointed secretaries made improper communication with three members of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board — which is currently presiding over Poseidon’s requests for the plant’s permits — during a set of summer hearings over the plant when a vote was expected.
California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld contacted water board regulators Lana Ong Peterson, Joe Kerr, and Kris Murray either close to or at the time of the board’s hearings on the project, according to official board disclosures.
“Blumenfeld mentioned the administration’s commitment to water quality and statewide water resilience consistent with the release of the Water Resilience Portfolio the prior Week,” wrote Murray in her disclosure. “He mentioned the proposed Poseidon Huntington Beach Desalination Facility in this context.”
On top of that, members of local indigenous groups say they’ve yet to be properly heard on the debate over a plant that would affect the environment they’re connected to.
The concerns over adequate input from those groups are laid out in a series of emails to water board members from Achjamen, Tongva and Chumash people who say little information was brought to them about the project beyond formal notices and letters.
Maloni, asked about this, referred to the State Lands Commission’s 2017 environmental impact report which said the State Lands Commission reached out to the Native American Heritage Commission to see whether there were any tribal cultural resources in the immediate area around the project.
According to that report, the Native American Heritage Commission responded and said there were none, listing a number of tribes it reached out to. That list didn’t include any Ajchamen groups, who advocates say stand to be most impacted by the project.
The water board staff’s executive officer Hope Smythe, in a written response to Voice of OC questions, said her agency sent, via certified mail, “formal notifications of consultation opportunity to California Native American tribes affiliated with the proposed project area.”
“The notifications invited California Native American tribes to consult and provide input on potential effects to tribal cultural resources due to project changes,” Smythe said. “The notifications were sent to tribal leadership identified on the Native American Heritage Commission California Tribal Consultation List.”
Smythe said the agency “did not receive responses” and that “staff at the Santa Ana Board and State Water Board will continue to coordinate with tribal liaisons to ensure appropriate outreach.”
Adelia Sandoval, a spiritual leader for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians/Acjachemen Nation, voiced concern over the project’s expected killing of marine life as her people have a special connection to the environment.
“I have no doubt that water availability and climate change will be issues in the future, and we will need to come up with solutions to those, but this project is not the way to do it,” Sandoval said in a Tuesday interview.
Supporters of the project say that with the threat of climate change, desalination presents a surefire solution to problems like drought that pose risks to Californians’ water supply and availability.
If the project clears hurdles at both the Santa Ana water board and then the state Coastal Commission, it would — once built — suck in more than 100 million gallons of ocean water per day, desalt half of it, and send the remaining 50 million gallons of saltier, concentrated brine back out into the ocean.
Opponents say the plant isn’t needed; some features of the project — such as its surface-level intake pipe — present huge hazards to marine life in the affected body of water despite the company’s promise to install mesh screens to prevent some animals from getting sucked in; and that Poseidon’s promises to mitigate its environmental damage aren’t adequate.
Poseidon has promised to finance the conservation of the nearby Bolsa Chica Wetlands, one of the state’s largest remaining saltwater marshes and habitat for key coastal species, as part of the project proposal. The marshes face the risk of sanding up if the ocean inlet allowing water to flow in and out closes.
That has some Bolsa Chica advocates split — some arguing the project is key to Bolsa Chica’s survival despite the project’s environmental damage, others arguing the wetlands don’t need Poseidon’s help.
Andrea Leon-Grossman, deputy director for environmental justice group Azul, warned of the project’s impacts on surrounding, poor households and pointed to this figure: State officials say there’s a combined $1 billion in water bill debt among California households statewide.
“If people cannot afford water right now, what makes anyone think we can afford water that is even more expensive?” Leon-Grossman said in a phone interview.
She also called on officials to ensure that the public doesn’t foot the bill to decommission the plant at the end of its anticipated 50-year operating life.