After more than 20 years, a June letter to Southern California water officials might spell the end for the Poseidon Water company’s desalinated dreams in Huntington Beach, once and for all.
The fatal blow came in May, from within the Hilton in Costa Mesa, where California Coastal Commissioners unanimously rejected Poseidon’s bid to build a desalting plant by the AES generating station in the city’s south end.
In striking the project down, commissioners cited what would be higher water rates, marine life loss, and impacts to poor households already living near industrial areas, from a project that would have taken 100 million daily gallons of seawater, desalted half of it, and discharged the other half back as saltier brine.
Supporters argued the project would have sustained North Orange County’s water supply through droughts and reduced the area’s reliance on imported water. Critics said the area didn’t need the water.
“As a result [of the project’s denial], the facility will not be constructed, and Poseidon has terminated its interest in the facility,” reads a letter Poseidon sent a month later, to a separate panel that’s orbited the saga, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board, on June 27.
The company letter seeks to withdraw the permit that the Santa Ana water panel already granted the project last year – one of many permits the project needed between agencies of various jurisdictions in California.
When that happened, Poseidon’s opponents came out swinging against the Santa Ana board’s decision, calling the process tainted by overhead maneuvering in favor of the project, namely around political appointees by the governor’s office.
“I think this is it,” said Andrea León Grossmann, Climate Action Director at the Latino environmental justice group Azul, over the phone on Tuesday. “The pulling of the permit means this plant is dead.”
In a written response to a request for comment, Poseidon spokesperson Alice Walton said: “The Coastal Commission ruling does not provide a path for the Huntington Beach project to advance.”
Now the company wants off the hook with the Santa Ana water board, for permit fees on a project that won’t be built.
“Poseidon therefore requests termination of the NPDES permit and asks that Poseidon will not be assessed permit feeds for the 2022-2023 fiscal year,” reads the company letter, signed by Poseidon’s corporate controller, Keith Bukowksi.
In response, the Santa Ana water board’s Executive Officer Jayne Joy wrote, “Poseidon will need to pay the outstanding balance before the Santa Ana Water Board can terminate its NPDES permit.”
Joy, in her letter, put that amount at nearly $300,000.
In her written statement Tuesday, Walton, the Poseidon spokesperson, did not comment on the permit fees when asked about them.
When California Coastal Commissioners made their decision in May, the company expressed disappointment. In the lead-up to the panel’s vote, the company had already criticized agency staff for issuing a “death knell” for seawater desalination development statewide.
The reason? Prior to the vote, commission staff under Senior Environmental Scientist Tom Luster issued a 200-page report recommending denial of the project, which notably focused on the environmental justice impacts of hooking poorer households up to more expensive water.
Unlike the environmentalists and activists who opposed the project for years, the report came from people on the commission’s payroll – those who coastal commissioners looked to for expertise when setting coastal policy.
For that, León Grossmann credits the commission’s environmental justice policies.
In 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2616 into law, which broadened the Commission’s authority to consider environmental justice when making coastal development permit decisions.
The new policies were enacted as amendments to the California Coastal Act of 1976 – the Coastal Commission’s foundational framework – and helped shape the advice that, in the ears of the state panel, led to the project’s unanimous denial at the Hilton.
“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,” staff wrote in their recommendations to the commission, at the time.
The report added, “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.”
“That really made a big difference with this project,” León Grossmann recalled. “So, the commission really showed that the environmental justice laws aren’t just a page – this is a living, breathing pledge.”
But if it’s living and breathing, could it also be killed?
To León Grossmann, the policies are secure. “This thing is in the books — this is not the first time (the policy enacted in 2016) was applied in this way.”
But in past years, even in the days before the commission’s Poseidon decision this year, some poked at the commission’s authority.
Last year, Orange County water officials with either past ties to Poseidon or a history of advocating for desalination, in general, pushed for a ballot measure that would have, if approved, weakened the Coastal Commission’s final authority on coastal development issues.
Namely, the initiative would’ve taken 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. Though the idea eventually died.
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.
The company apologized during the commission hearing. By then, the meeting’s chair asked the crowd to be civil a number of times.
When the commission’s decision drew nearer, Poseidon representatives took aim at the existing regulatory structure.
“California’s elected officials and regulators should consider the dire consequences that this recommendation will have for desalination in California,” the company wrote in a statement reacting to the staff report, at the time.
It added, “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.”
Since 2016, the commission approved nearly a dozen desalination facilities up and down the state, from Poseidon’s other plant in Carlsbad to even small-scale operations like the one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
León Grossmann said the tighter regulatory power was only an equalizer.
“They’re being applied to protect Californians who have been living in sacrifice zones, which is where you have people living in industrialization and pollution … you’re not gonna have this type of industry in high-income areas where people can defend themselves,” she said.
It’s a different story in working-class communities, she said.
“Which is where we desperately needed these types of policies … We really need to have a level playing field – this is part of what this policy did,” she added.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Andrea León Grossmann’s title at Azul. She is the Climate Action Director. We regret the error.