A 20-year fight over the Poseidon Water company’s contested Huntington Beach desalination proposal will enter its last lap on March 17, the day the California Coastal Commission is set to hear it in what could be the project’s final regulatory hurdle.

Official word on the hearing date came to Voice of OC in a concise Tuesday night email from commission spokesperson Noaki Schwartz:

“Hearing will be March 17.”

Proponents argue Poseidon’s $1 billion project would provide a drought-proof source of local water as the effects of climate change worsen, while also creating construction and operating jobs.

Opponents call it a boondoggle, pushed by lobbyists and legal battles, that would alter the coastal ecosystem, kill nearby marine life, and unnecessarily hike local water rates for nearby low-income communities that can’t afford it.

Lawsuits, lobbying, environmental debates, and opposition campaigns have all been part of the 20-year fight.

The hearing also comes after one of Orange County’s worst coastal environmental disasters in recent history, the 2021 oil spill – an event which Coastal Commission officials have signaled will influence their consideration of Poseidon’s permit to build the plant. 

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Recently, Voice of OC reported that Poseidon asked for $1.1 billion in project financing from the California Debt Limit Allocation Committee, a state panel that regularly issues tax-exempt bonds to help finance private projects with public benefits, as Poseidon says its planned facility would provide.

A decision on Poseidon’s request has not been made.

But there are other public benefit projects vying for that money, like affordable housing as the State of California faces a housing shortage. And demand has stacked up to billions more than what the state committee can actually dole out. 

Poseidon’s billion-dollar-ask was criticized by activist groups opposing the plant and the Orange County Register Editorial Board.

Company representatives argued the state loans’ lower interest rates might translate to lower water production costs – thus lower rates – as opposed to private borrowing with higher interest.

Poseidon has found support for its objectives in Orange County despite the fierce opposition to a facility that would take in 100 million gallons of ocean water daily, desalt half of it, and send the saltier concentrated brine back into the ocean. 

Namely, the project has support from the Orange County Water District, which has already agreed on non-binding terms for purchasing Poseidon’s water when the plant comes online. 

The project nearly got help in another way.

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A now-dead proposal for a 2022 state ballot measure sought to give the state’s Natural Resources Secretary veto power over the Coastal Commission regarding coastal developments such as Poseidon’s.

The measure would have applied retroactively to projects approved after Sept. 1 of last year, meaning Poseidon would have been eligible for appeal to the Natural Resources Secretary, who’s appointed by the governor.

Though organizers with the More Water Now campaign withdrew the measure on Tuesday, citing a lack of fundraising, according to The Mercury News.

The measure was pushed by Orange County Water District Board President Steve Sheldon and Mesa Water District Board Director Shawn Dewane, who are aiming for the measure to appear on the ballot this election year.

In the past, Sheldon worked for Poseidon as a consultant for PR firm Faubel Public Affairs, and Dewane, a past chairman for the pro-desalination advocacy group CalDesal. Though Dewane in an earlier story denied the notion of the measure being “secondary advocacy” for the project.

In any case, the Coastal Commission came out swinging in a prior statement to Voice of OC against the proposed measure as 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 project also seems to have support from Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose environmental secretary came under scrutiny for improperly contacting Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board directors in 2020 while the panel presided over the plant’s wastewater discharge permit. 

During that panel’s deliberations, Newsom also replaced a vocal project critic on the board, William von Blasingame of Irvine, with Tustin Mayor Letitia Clark, who ultimately voted in favor of more lax restrictions on Poseidon’s permit last year.

This story was updated to reflect that the veto initiative was abruptly pulled by the More Water Now campaign on Tuesday night, shortly before this story published.

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