Amid drought, California desalination project at crossroads

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. – For more than two decades, Orange County in California has debated whether to build a bathing plant to convert salt water from the Pacific Ocean into drinking water in hopes of protecting against droughts like the one currently raging in the most populous state in the country.

Now, Poseidon Water’s $1.4 billion proposal is under critical review Thursday by the California Coastal Commission, which is charged with protecting California’s scenic shorelines.

Poseidon and his supporters, including Governor Gavin Newsom, say the Huntington Beach plant will produce 50 million gallons of water a day, which is crucial to help reduce state and federal water supplies after years of drought. Newsom, a Democrat, recently told the Bay Area News Group editorial board that a denial would be a “big setback” and “we need more tools in the damn toolbox” to fight the drought.

But environmental groups and Coast Commission staff, which reviewed the plan, oppose it. They argue that it will damage marine life by killing tiny organisms that form the basis of the ocean’s food web. They also say it is vulnerable to flooding and other hazards. And some in the water industry say the cost of desalinated water is too high and not needed in an area with access to cheaper sources.

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“The ocean is not our reservoir. We do not own its contents,” said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network and member of the Stop Poseidon coalition. “It belongs to the planet, but they use it as their personal piggy bank and it’s not a piggy bank. It must be protected. »

California has spent most of the past 15 years in drought conditions. Its normal wet season that runs from late fall to late winter has been particularly dry this year, and as a result, 95% of the state is classified as severely drought-prone.

Last summer, Newsom urged residents to cut their consumption by 15%, but since then water consumption has only fallen by around 3%. Some regions have begun to introduce generally mild restrictions, in most cases limiting the number of days lawns can be watered. Stricter restrictions are likely later in the year.

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Much of California’s water comes from snowmelt and with a much lower than normal snowpack, state officials told water agencies they would only receive 5% of what they asked of state water supplies beyond what is needed for critical activities like drinking and bathing.

The idea of ​​desalination has been debated for decades in Huntington Beach, a coastal community southeast of Los Angeles known as “Surf City USA” that depends on its sand and waves for tourism. These days, discussions about the project have also focused on the impact of climate change on regional water supplies and sea level rise in the low-lying coastal area where the plant would be built.

Desalination takes seawater and removes salt and other elements to make it drinkable. These elements are discharged into the sea, while the water can be piped directly to consumers or used to replenish a groundwater basin. The country’s largest seawater desalination plant is already operating in neighboring San Diego County, and there are coastal plants in Florida as well.

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More than two decades ago, Poseidon proposed to build two desalination plants – one in San Diego County and one in Huntington Beach. The San Diego County plant was approved and built, and desalinated water now represents 10% of the San Diego County Water District’s water supply.

But the Huntington Beach project has experienced many delays. In 2013, the Coast Commission expressed concern that the proposed use of water intake structures to rapidly draw large volumes of water from the ocean would harm marine life. Poseidon, which is owned by Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, conducted additional studies and resubmitted the plan with a proposal to mitigate marine damage through the restoration of nearby wetlands.

Thursday’s commission hearing is seen by supporters and opponents of the project as do or die. Last month, panel staffers released a 200-page report opposing the project, saying it fails to comply with marine life protection policies and policies to minimize the risk of tsunamis and disasters. sea ​​level rise.

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Orange County has an extensive groundwater basin and recycles wastewater, making the region less dependent on imported water than San Diego. The Orange County Water District, which has announced plans to purchase Poseidon’s water, manages the basin that helps meet about 75% of water demand in heavily populated northern and central areas. of the county which are home to 2.5 million people.

Poseidon argues the county would still benefit from locking in a drought-tolerant spring, but critics say the region can do without and would be better served economically and environmentally by focusing more on recycling, noting that an expansion of the famed The county’s wastewater recycling program is already underway.

“It diversifies our offering as an insurance policy,” said Jessica Jones, director of communications for Poseidon. She said the benefits would extend beyond the California coast to inland communities and other states that could gain increased access to imported water supplies once Orange County can rely on desalinated water.

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Steve Sheldon, water district chairman, said he was confident other water agencies would also be interested in the water once it was a sure thing. Desalinated water is more expensive now, but Sheldon said he expects the cost of imported water to rise over time as well.

“Water supplies are dwindling,” Sheldon said. “This factory can be built in four years and I don’t know of any other project that can be brought online in at least a decade.”

But Paul Cook, general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District – one of Orange County’s water retailers – said he doesn’t see the need for water in a county that has its own water sources. abundant and diverse. He said he didn’t want to buy expensive and unnecessary desalinated water for his customers, which would increase household water bills.

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“It might work in Abu Dhabi or Israel, but we’re not them,” he said of desalination. “We have our own needs, we have our own resources.”

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