Credit: Kelly Rowe

Since the California Coastal Commission denied its coastal development permit on May 12th for the Poseidon Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination Project, everyone now assumes “Poseidon is Dead in Orange County”.  This funeral is to assert it really is dead, and perhaps should never have been alive in the first place.  Poseidon started marketing its most-expensive, last-resort, project to Orange County in 1999, 23-years ago.  From the beginning to its end, Poseidon was told repeatedly by essentially all wholesale and retail water managers and technical professionals in OC that their desal water was too expensive and not needed, as there are many other cheaper sources of water available to OC. That did not stop Poseidon, however, as it reportedly spent over $100 million trying to sell its desal plant and site, located 5 feet above sea level, about four blocks from the beach.  How is that, since they did not build anything?  Their basic problems are (1) the delusion their water was needed and (2) their sales job only presented half the project.

Poseidon should have simply done their homework.  Orange County’s north and central area overlies a massive basin that stores about 66 million acre feet of groundwater.  The Orange County Water District (OCWD) board conservatively manages the basin to allow about 300,000 acre feet of groundwater to be used annually, less than 0.5-percent of the storage capacity.  Groundwater supplies are routinely replenished primarily from recharge of flows from our local Santa Ana River, and RO/UV-purified sewer water through OCWD’s world’s largest Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) treatment plant.  All retail water agencies and cities can pump up to 77-percent of their water supplies from their own high-capacity municipal groundwater wells.  Each retailer has its own network of somewhat small pipelines and set of big municipal supply wells to access our abundant groundwater supplies.

The only practical way for Poseidon’s proposal to work is (1) build and operate a seawater desal water plant, (2) build a large transmission pipeline about 10 miles inland into a network of about 26 new large deep groundwater injection wells, and (3) build an equal number of high-capacity municipal groundwater production wells and distribution pipelines to get Poseidon’s extra water out of the groundwater aquifers. Use the massive groundwater basin for water storage and distribution, along with additional natural treatment by the water flowing through the sands and gravels of the local aquifers.

This practical use of desalinated seawater for groundwater recharge and water supply is essentially an “Orange-County-wide” or regional proposal.  Perhaps 50 million gallons per day of desal water will actually be needed in OC 40 years from now, once all other cheaper options are explored and developed. 

Orange County has never needed a “Poseidon” to come along.  OCWD is more than capable to independently design, build and operate a seawater desalination water resources component for OC much better and cheaper than any for-profit private organization.  Look at the GWRS sewer water purification treatment plant, at 130 million gallons per day (soon), almost three-times larger than Poseidon’s proposed plant.  Poseidon is frankly an insult and embarrassment to Orange County and its more than capable water resources management professionals, which unfortunately we will have to explain here for decades.

There is a lot of wisdom contained in both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), respectively, for Environmental Impact Reports and Environmental Impact Statements (EIRs and EISs).  Key fundamental compliance aspects of both CEQA and NEPA is for a proposed project to (1) prove a need for the project by examining existing environmental conditions (No Action Alternative), (2) describe the proposed project environmental impacts and potential mitigation measures (Proposed Project Alternative), and (3) describe one or more alternative projects that may be compared to the Proposed Project, to evaluate their environmental impacts and potential mitigation (Other Alternative Projects). 

As with Poseidon’s project, CEQA is also simply violated when a large proposed project is divided into smaller projects, called “Piecemealing”, to avoid addressing impacts and needed mitigation measures from the actual totally larger project.  NEPA uses the violation term “Connected Actions”, which essentially means the same thing as CEQA’s illegal “piecemealed” projects.

Poseidon prepared an illegal CEQA “Certified EIR” sham approved by the Huntington Beach City Council in 2002 and in 2010.  Poseidon’s HB Certified EIR was used over the last 20 years in OC as its centerpiece proof it is in compliance with CEQA, ready to construct its plant after getting its required regulatory permits from regional and state agencies. It is pretty much a joke.

Poseidon’s HB EIR should never have been approved by the HB City Council, as it failed to consider the No Action Alternative, the actual many other water supply alternatives OCWD has plans for and continues to seek more and cheaper alternatives to manage OC’s water supplies.  Poseidon’s HB EIR also violated CEQA as it piecemealed/connected-actioned the plant, one half of the project, from the other half that included drilling, construction and operation of over 40 new large deep injection wells and production wells in the groundwater basin.  None of these wells, within many disadvantaged communities, were addressed in the EIR.  The present HB City Council is now considering rescinding all of its CEQA Poseidon environmental documents so they may not be used again fraudulently.

Californians studying CEQA should use the Poseidon HB EIR as an example of what not to do in the future for similar fraudulent projects.  The EIR should never have been approved in the first place, or should have subsequently been challenged by any number of public management and regulatory agencies.  Poseidon’s project simply being on a list of potential projects that may be done did not mean it was ever “needed” for regulatory permit approvals.  You can also include on the list towing an iceberg or big bag of Columbia River water from Oregon down to OC.  It cost Poseidon’s investors $100 million and California’s management and regulatory agencies many years or decades of work their staffs could have used on legitimate projects.

Poseidon pursued and was allowed to apply for a $585 million low-interest loan through the U.S. EPA during the Trump administration.  The EPA is required to complete its own NEPA process before the loan is approved.  EPA will not allow the Poseidon HB EIR to stand as “equal to an EIS”, as it violates both CEQA & NEPA fundamentals, by not proving a project need for the water and missing impacts of major connected actions of the complete project.  EPA should formally rescind its low-interest loan application offer, so the funds may be used by legitimate projects in other parts of our country.

LA Times columns from 2020-22 show Poseidon spent large sums to lobby for its project. Poseidon was successful in legally supporting campaigns for a number of pro-Poseidon people onto the OCWD board of directors.  OCWD’s first non-binding “Term Sheet” agreement with Poseidon on May 14, 2015 show a pro-Poseidon board majority existed. July 18, 2018 the OCWD board narrowly approved a revised second non-binding “Term Sheet” with Poseidon, to purchase its desal water once all required permits are approved.  (Poseidon could have simply died then.)

Poseidon could now show the public they had a “potential buyer” to convince investors to continue funding their project.  Poseidon used this questionable “Term Sheet” to achieve unwarranted credibility by association with the prestigious OCWD.  It also allowed many people to falsely claim OCWD is in “partnership” with Poseidon at public meetings and in public documents. The recent Coastal Commission’s unanimous permit denial proves a formal OCWD partnership board vote is now not going to happen. 

Thankfully, there also will not be any long-term lawsuits by the local retail agencies contesting such a formal agreement, as Poseidon folks are under the delusion formal approval by the OCWD board was all that was needed to build their unneeded plant. Checking with OCWD staff I’m assured OCWD only had staff provide adequate assistance to Poseidon on a limited basis, showing limited technical professional support for the project.  Hardly any evidence OCWD supported Poseidon, except to wait until Poseidon failed/succeeded to get its required approvals for its regulatory permits.  Poseidon’s half project desal plant at a bad location should now be officially dead.

It will be interesting to see the upcoming documentaries and perhaps a comical or dramatic feature film explaining how the Huntington Beach Poseidon seawater desalination project became one of the largest water and land frauds in California’s history.

Kelly E. Rowe, PG, CEG, CH is a California-licensed engineering geologist/hydrogeologist water resources and environmental management consultant with over 40 years of experience throughout the U.S. and overseas.  Mr. Rowe is also an elected member of the OCWD board of directors (Division 7) representing Costa Mesa and the western parts of Irvine and Newport Beach. He has 10 years of experience as a Federal Disaster Official with FEMA over the last 20 years on many federal disasters involved with restoration of public infrastructure across the U.S. He is the 2001 founder and president of the American Water Resources Association Southern California Section.

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