Seinfeld aired its series finale, the FDA first approved Viagra, and California banned smoking inside bars and restaurants the same year Poseidon Water came to town with an idea for a large-scale seawater desalting plant in Huntington Beach.
More than two decades later, the big plan to suck 100 million gallons off the coast every day and turn half into drinkable water to privately sell – deemed a solution in search of a problem by critics – might be off to a bad start in facing its biggest state regulatory hurdle yet:
The California Coastal Commission.
On May 12, the commission will meet in Costa Mesa to vote on the project’s needed coastal development permit, sought by a company that’s controlled under the $688 billion investment firm known as Brookfield Asset Management.
Commission staff under Senior Environmental Scientist Tom Luster issued a 200-page report recommending denial of the project, citing marine life loss, environmental damage, and uncertainty – without any assured local water agency buyers – over the impacts to ratepayers.
Unlike the environmentalists and activists who opposed the project for years, this advice comes from people on the commission’s payroll – those who coastal commissioners look to for expertise when setting coastal policy.
Poseidon, in turn, called the staff report a “death knell” for desalination in California, in a recent company statement:
“California’s elected officials and regulators should consider the dire consequences that this recommendation will have for desalination in California. The reality is that no public agency — and very few private entities — could spend the time and money the California Coastal Commission has required to vet a large-scale desalination project. No water infrastructure project in the state of California has ever undergone this level of study and scrutiny.”
It’s a big charge against a commission that’s approved nearly a dozen desalination facilities up and down the state as of 2016, from Poseidon’s other plant in Carlsbad to even small-scale operations like the one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Requests for comment from a company spokesperson, Alice Walton, and company executive Sachin Chawla were redirected to the company’s written statement responding to the staff report.
Critics say Poseidon’s own ambitions are to blame – that the company’s refusal to scale down over the years all but ensured regulatory objection to a plan which at various points saw support from big names in OC water politics, former President Donald Trump, and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“It’s their own hubris that has possibly killed this project,” said Susan Jordan, a Poseidon opponent and environmentalist based in Santa Barbara, in an April phone interview. She’s the executive director for the California Coastal Protection Network.
Newsom most recently spoke in favor of the project during a meeting with the editorial board of the Bay Area News Group.
“We need more tools in the damn tool kit,” said Newsom in remarks printed by the San Jose Mercury News. “We are as dumb as we want to be. What more evidence do you need that you need to have more tools in the tool kit than what we’ve experienced? Seven out of the last ten years have been severe drought.”
His office was lobbied heavily by Poseidon with millions of dollars and even replaced a vocal Poseidon critic on the Santa Ana Water Board just weeks before the board voted to approve the project’s wastewater discharge permit.
His environmental secretary also came under scrutiny at the time for making improper communications with Santa Ana water board members about Newsom’s water policies during the months they presided over Poseidon’s permit application.
How Much Marine Life Will Die?
A big point of contention is Poseidon’s proposed method of taking in the seawater.
Critics have long said a subsurface intake pipe would do less damage to the local marine life and ecosystem. Poseidon and commission staff over the years consulted a technical panel to review the idea’s feasibility.
The panel determined most ways of subsurface intake were technically infeasible “in this location,” staff wrote, but found there was one way that would have worked – it just wasn’t “economically feasible” due to the “cost and time it would take to implement,” staff wrote.
The intake pipe would have a mesh screen to filter out organisms, but would also kill animals with the salty brine discharge.
High-velocity diffusers would ensure “the brine does not concentrate and sink to the seafloor where it would create a high salinity ‘dead zone’ around the outfall,” staff wrote. “However, the velocity of the discharge exiting the diffusers is high enough to kill marine life in about 168 million gallons of the receiving waters each day.”
The facility, in total, “would kill marine life in about 100 billion gallons of seawater per year,” the report reads – “equal to a loss of productivity from 423 acres of nearshore and estuarine waters each year.”
Yet Poseidon also staked its proposal on a vow to finance the restoration and upkeep of the at-risk Bolsa Chica Wetlands, in return for its plant’s approval.
“However, this mitigation is far less than needed to ensure conformity to Coastal Act
Provisions,” staff wrote in their report.
Coastal Commission staff in their report argue they understand that California needs “new, reliable sources of water” in a region that still relies on imported water.
But staff drew a contrast with Poseidon in the written report, staking this understanding on “well-planned and sited desalination facilities.”
Poseidon would build the plant and operate it on roughly 12 acres of the roughly 54-acre site of the AES Generating Station in Huntington Beach.
Poseidon would use the power plant’s cooling water intake system to draw in up to 106.7 million gallons per day and produce up to 50 million gallons of drinkable water for local OC water districts to purchase.
The plant would discharge approximately 57 million gallons of highly salted brine per day through the AES power plant’s 1,500-foot pipe extending offshore. Poseidon proposes to operate the facility for approximately 50-60 years, after which the plant would likely be decommissioned.
Environmental activists have opposed the project for largely the same written reasons as commission staff.
Supporters say the plant would provide a drought-proof source of water and reduce the region’s reliance on imported water amidst the effects of climate change.
The argument’s been echoed by a number of high-profile elected officials who’ve spoken out in public support of Poseidon in Orange County, many of them in local water policy making positions.
That includes Orange County Water District Board President Steve Sheldon, Mesa Water District Board Director Shawn Dewane, and even former Anaheim council members Jordan Brandman and Kris Murray, the latter of whom sat on the Santa Ana Water Board and voted to approve Poseidon’s wastewater discharge permit.
Murray was among several board members who pushed last year for more lax restrictions on the plant’s ability to pollute the coast with concentrated brine before embarking on environmental mitigation.
Water Crisis or Water Management Crisis?
“The Coastal Commission staff continues to try to convince its commissioners that there is no water crisis. Time and again we hear desal opponents cry ‘we don’t need the water!’ Yet as we enter another year of drought and Southern California water managers start instituting water rationing, the evidence does not support this claim,” the company wrote in a May 2 newsletter.
“For too long our regulators have responded to the extremists who shout the loudest. It’s time for those who quietly work, pay taxes, and are trying to make it in California to stand up and be counted,” it adds.
Andrea León-Grossmann, director of the Latino environmental justice group called Azul, said in another April phone interview that California doesn’t have a water crisis – but a water “management” crisis.
León-Grossman looks to conservation and recycling.
California doesn’t do much of that.
The state reported roughly 3.7 million acre-feet per year (AFY) of wastewater entered its treatment plants in 2019, according to data from the State Water Resources Control Board.
The state discharged roughly 2.7 million AFY of that water and it all went unrecycled.
“The fact we’re still flushing our toilets with drinking water is absurd,” León-Grossman said.
Though water reuse across California has increased since the 1970s, according to a 2009 Municipal Wastewater Recycling Survey.
The location of the plant’s construction itself raised red flags for commission staff.
Environmental regulators have a name for the coastal area of impact: Brownfield.
It means it’s a focused area of industrial activities and what Coastal Commission staff called a “history of contamination problems” in Huntington Beach. Environmental activists called it the “toxic triangle.”
While bordered to the west by beach and wetlands, commission staff note the eastward Orange County Wastewater Treatment Plant and a knot of heavy industry including two natural gas power plants that are proximate to the Poseidon location.
There’s also the nearby former ASCON landfill, a 38-acre property that operated with permits from 1938 to 1984.
During the Huntington Beach oil boom which accelerated the city’s residential growth in the early 20th Century, oil production workers took drilling waste there. Later, it was construction and industrial waste.
The landfill is now an EPA superfund site, which are federally-recognized polluted zones requiring a long-term strategy to clean up hazardous and contaminated waste. The ASCON site is still being remediated with delay in 2019 amid nearby residents’ reports of breathing issues.
Commission staff said residents are “wary” of Poseidon’s intention to trench a water delivery pipeline route along Hamilton Avenue and thus “disturbing” the soil by the landfill cleanup site and “possibly mobilizing contaminants in the soil and groundwater.”
Their report also raises the concern that the construction work would involve taking toxic soil to a landfill “likely located” near neighborhoods with already-poor environmental quality.
“Orange County ratepayers who spoke with staff said they felt they were in the dark about
fundamental project details and raised concerns that neither Poseidon nor OCWD had
proactively engaged with them regarding expected costs,” the report reads.
Over the last 20-plus years that the project’s been in the proposal stage, some potentially affected ratepayers found out about it on social media, not from the company, per conversations commission staff said they had in their report.
The staff report puts a sizeable focus on the idea of environmental justice.
In their report, staff said the lack of a guaranteed buyer of Poseidon’s water among local water agencies – there’s a non-binding agreement with the Orange County Water District – made it “impossible” to pinpoint which areas of the region might be affected.
Staff could, however, say this: “There are likely more underserved communities that are unable to participate in the process because they are currently unaware of the project and its potential impacts on their households.”
“These underserved populations may be impacted by higher water bills well after a decision is made on this project – exactly the scenario the Commission’s EJ Policy was designed to avoid.”
“Although Poseidon has stated that its water would add no more than about three to six dollars per month to the average water bill, the actual costs remain unknown,” the report reads. “Though would likely be higher.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Coastal Commission hearing was set for May 17 when it was really May 12. We regret the error.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
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