A proposed statewide ballot measure could save a highly controversial desalination plant proposed in Huntington Beach, if it gets shot down next year by the California Coastal Commission — what’s viewed as the project’s tallest regulatory hurdle.
The measure is being pushed by at least two prominent, Orange County water officials with either past ties to Poseidon or a history of advocating for desalination in general.
The decades-long fight over building the contested seawater plant could finally end early next year when state coastal regulators vote on approving or denying the project its needed permit.
The California Coastal Commission would — on paper — have the final say on whether the Poseidon Water Co. can build a facility to suck in 100 million gallons of seawater daily, desalt half of it to sell, and discharge the wastewater brine into the waters off Orange County’s shores.
The decision, which a commission spokesperson said could happen as early as this February, would cap 20 years of lawsuits, lobbying, political debate and regulatory hearings across multiple state agencies of varying natural resource jurisdictions.
There’s a current push to put a question before California voters — by the November 2022 election — of whether the state should set aside more public dollars toward water supply projects and change such projects’ environmental review processes.
Namely, the initiative could take the final say on water projects, like Poseidon’s proposed desalination facility, out of the Coastal Commission’s hands, for reconsideration by higher powers in Sacramento.
The proposed ballot measure, the “Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022,” was filed with the state Attorney General’s office for circulation on Aug. 26.
Its listed proponents include two prominent Orange County water officials:
Orange County Water District Board President Steve Sheldon, who has in the past worked for Poseidon as a consultant for PR firm Faubel Public Affairs, and Mesa Water District Board Director Shawn Dewane, a past chairman for the pro-desalination advocacy group CalDesal.
The initiative in part seeks to allow appeals of Coastal Commission votes on coastal projects to the Natural Resources Secretary, who’s appointed by the governor — currently, Gavin Newsom, who’s taken action from his office in recent years favorable to the Poseidon project.
Any Coastal Commission decision on a project made after Sept. 1 of this year could be appealed to the state Natural Resources Secretary within 30 days, under the language of the initiative.
So the measure, if passed in 2022, could apply retroactively, giving new life to more than a year’s worth of projects turned down by state coastal regulators in the time leading up — Poseidon possibly being among them.
Dewane, in an Oct. 28 phone interview, dismissed notions of this initiative being a “shill” or “secondary advocacy” for the Poseidon project.
“I don’t see that as an ulterior motive, I don’t see that at all. Poseidon’s project has to stand on its own two feet, you know, they still have their own challenges ahead with the Coastal Commission, but no, I don’t see this as a show for that project,” Dewane said.
Still, Coastal Commission officials are saying publicly that the proposed ballot measure could weaken the Coastal Act of 1976, the state’s cornerstone law designed to protect the coast and public coastal access. It’s the framework upon which the commission operates.
“This initiative would significantly weaken the Coastal Act, which has for 50 years protected the California coast,” said Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth in a statement to Voice of OC.
Ainsworth went on to call it “an insidious maneuver that could allow wealthy corporations to overturn Coastal Commission actions protecting California’s precious coastal resources, public access and coastal communities.”
The initiative could effectively “ensure” Poseidon gets its needed permit by having the final say go to a Governor-appointed secretary, says Susan Jordan, a vocal project critic and the California Coastal Protection Network executive director.
California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crawfoot was appointed by Newsom in January, 2019. A spokesperson for his agency declined to comment on the initiative.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that another state secretary, Jared Blumenfeld, made improper communication with three members of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board during a set of summer hearings last year when their vote on a permit for the Poseidon project was expected.
At the time, board members disclosed that Blumenfeld, in conversations, expressed the state’s commitment to water resilience and mentioned the Poseidon project in that context.
Meanwhile, Gov. Newsom has been associated with the project through his ouster of a vocal Poseidon critic, William von Blasingame, off that same board prior to the panel’s vote, replacing him with Tustin Mayor Letitia Clark, who ultimately supported fewer restrictions on Poseidon’s permit during the vote.
“That’s the question I would be asking to Poseidon, if they’re supporting or opposing this initiative,” Jordan, of the California Coastal Protection Network, said.
Voice of OC reached out to Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni, who has represented the company during public hearings on its proposal for the Huntington Beach facility, about the measure. Maloni declined to comment, saying he wasn’t familiar with it.
Though Dewane said the measure seeks to accomplish other things, like setting aside 2% of the state’s taxpayer-funded general fund and allocating it to water supply projects.
The money could also be used to boost water conservation, like providing rebates for people who use water-efficient home appliances and farming irrigation systems, as well for people who plant drought-tolerant plants on their lawns, according to an official review of the initiative performed by state analysts and sent to the Attorney General’s office.
But California “can’t conserve its way out of a drought,” Dewane argued, hence the initiative seeking to set aside 2% of the state’s general fund to water supply projects. Analysts in their review said it would mean setting aside between $2.5 and $4 billion a year.
The analysts’ review also predicts that, with the state shouldering more of the cost for water supply projects if the ballot measure passes, there would be net savings to local water agencies who otherwise would have spent their own money on the projects.
Ainsworth, of the Coastal Commission, acknowledged “drought in California is our new normal and the Commission understands that responsibly designed desalination facilities will be an important part of California’s water portfolio going forward.”
Yet, he added, “We don’t need to gut the Coastal Act in order to provide safe, reliable, affordable drinking water.”
Indeed, state analysts in their official review wrote the initiative would likely “expedite the time lines [sic] for the reviews and overall project completion, but also could reduce the level of review of potential impacts for coastal projects.”
Proponents of the bill hope to collect the needed signatures for the initiative between November this year and April next, in order to have it placed on the November 2022 ballot, according to one website set up to support the measure, More Water Now.
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