The California Coastal Commission decided against the Poseidon Water company’s controversial desalination plant proposal, which could’ve killed marine life and changed the ecosystem on Orange County’s coast.
For now, it marks an end to a 20-year battle between environmentalists and the desalination company’s proposal for the Huntington Beach plant.
Twelve commissioners sat at a long table inside the Hilton in Costa Mesa on Thursday and decided the ocean will not lose 100 million gallons of seawater daily to a desalting plant that would return half of it as harmful brine – something that would’ve impacted the coastline for 50 years.
A big reason for a few commissioners’ disapproval was the potential marine life loss – equivalent to about 100 billion gallons of seawater annually, per official estimates – to the plant’s would-be open intake pipe and the concentrated wastewater discharge it would spit back out.
“I just get stuck there and can’t get past that and can’t figure out any reasons that that would be okay right now,” said Coastal Commissioner Dayna Bochco. “The ocean is under attack by humans in particular, but also by climate.”
Commissioner Meagan Harmon said Poseidon’s project as proposed did not comply with the California Coastal Act of 1976, the commission’s foundational document that’s tasked with protecting the coast and public coastal access and regulating development there.
“I wish I didn’t have to take this vote today,” Harmon said. “I’m not opposed to desalination full-stop, I’m not. I believe desalination is, must be, and will continue to be a fundamental part of our state’s water portfolio.”
Harmon lives in Santa Barbara, where there is also a desalination plant. “And it’s been critical to our community to weathering the water crisis — I’ve seen the good desalination can do in communities and how effective it can be when done right, but … it has to be cost-effective and environmentally sound.”
“Cost-effective and environmentally sound,” she reiterated.
Activists in the crowd stood, cheered, even cried at the decision.
For years, they campaigned against the desalination project’s anticipated coastal ecosystem damage and what would have been water bill hikes for north and central Orange County ratepayers.
Poseidon Water representatives – who debated their proposal’s critics on TV, lobbied local and state officials, and defended the plant at long government regulatory hearings – did not.
Instead, they released a statement.
“This was not the decision we were hoping for today. We thank Gov. Gavin Newsom for his support of this project, correctly pointing out that desalination is an important tool in the toolkit. We believe in the Governor’s vision and his Water Resilience Portfolio, which identified the goal of maintaining and diversifying water supplies,” said company spokesperson Jessica Jones in written remarks emailed out to the media.
Another company spokesperson, Alice Walton, declined over email to say whether the company was considering a challenge to the state panel’s decision through the court.
Company officials mostly expected the vote to go that way. In the weeks leading to the state hearing inside the Hilton, they lambasted the coastal protection agency’s staff for issuing an opinion that the company termed a “death knell” for seawater desalination in California.
On April 23, commission staff under Senior Environmental Scientist Tom Luster – the people who voting members of the commission rely on for expert advice – suggested the panel deny Poseidon’s project with a 200-page written report on their reasons why.
Days before the actual vote, Poseidon representatives emailed the Coastal Commission with the company’s own “proposed” version of the staff report, which rewrote sections — suggesting approval instead of denial — but kept the government letterhead.
“I have to say I was stunned by what I would call a false Coastal Commission document that we described earlier today, which I will not go into, but I think we can all agree was a pretty bad idea,” said Commissioner Caryl Hart before the vote.
“We want to apologize if the staff report we sent caused any confusion,” said DJ Moore of the Latham & Watkins firm, speaking on behalf of Poseidon early on in the morning. Moore said he assumed “responsibility” for the swirl of chatter and alarm it triggered the previous day.
“We must maintain decorum — seriously, Shh,” said Commission Chair Donna Brownsey when the crowd responded.
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