What do the city of Carlsbad, the country of Saudi Arabia and Catalina Island have in common? They are all host to commercial water desalination plants. Saudi Arabia, in fact, obtains the majority of its water from the oceans. If Poseidon Water gets its way, they will have their foot in the door to do the same here in Orange County.
Poseidon Water, a major player in the water production industry, has been trying to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach for the past 15 years. It looked like the process of permitting and planning was finally coming to a head with a recent hearing before the California Coastal Commission. Supposedly, these folks would have the final say as to whether Poseidon could go ahead with their plans.
The project has faced massive opposition from mainstream environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation who say the project is a danger to marine life. One aspect of the proposal has the system using existing sea intakes which are soon to be outlawed by the state. So, even using those intakes would require a modification or change by the year 2020. The company has promised to review the issues raised at the hearing, attended by more than 300 people, and return with acceptable answers. “This project has taken us more than 15 years. we’re not going to just go away”, said Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni.
Other environmental issues dogging the project concern location. Although the company is footing the bill for the initial construction through a so-called public-private partnership, they are relying on existing plant facilities for much of their infrastructure. The plant is slated to be built on the same property as the existing AES power generation plant. And, although their website claims they do not need the AES plant to generate their electricity needs, it is clear having ready made power nearby is an advantage. The Carlsbad facility which is operated by Poseidon is also built next to an electrical generation station. And, when the AES plant was scheduled to shutdown in 2018, we could presume the land would go to better uses (after cleanup). With Poseidon continuing to operate, the land would continue to be a blight on the coast.
In some ways, cost is as big a factor as the environment. Generating fresh water from seawater is power intensive and costly. According to Poseidon, who downplays the cost by putting it in terms of per-family, it will take 35 megawatts of power to run the desalinators. That’s a massive amount of electricity for the meager return from the plant. In fact, the single plant will supply only 8%% of the water needs of Orange County.
While that may seem like a significant amount, it will be at a significant cost to the consumer. Currently, water coming from conventional sources costs less than half the $2,000 per acre foot of desalinated water. Poseidon has a friend in local water companies to help them over the economic hurdle, however.
The Municipal Water District of Orange County is on board with desalination. “Continuing to invest in additional water sources such as ocean desalination, will be critical to both our
economy and sustaining Orange County’s growth,” touts their website, showing the same eight percent slice of the pie for desalinated water as Poseidon’s charts. If MWDOC contracts with Poseidon, Tustin, as a member agency, will have no choice but to foot the bill for the project. But, that’s OK because most of Tustin’s Councilmembers are on board with the idea even though many cities, including Los Angeles and Long Beach have shelved the idea of desalination in favor of cheaper and easier to obtain sources that include, (what will they think of next?) water conservation efforts. This isn’t surprising as the conservative majority of the council has long held that business interests, any business, take precedence over the needs and desires of the residents of our town Tustin.
MWDOC is also on board in other ways. They are a member of the Mesa Water District inspired CalDesal, a quasi-government inspired non-profit that promotes desalination efforts “in the Golden State”. Membership is limited to government agencies and water districts. Current membership, including MWDOC, is thirty-four. Associate members, almost all of whom are companies related to the water industry, number forty.
The economic risk, by the way, is with the consumer. If Poseidon is allowed to build their plant under current conditions, consumer agencies such as MWDOC have agreed to buy water from them regardless of whether they need it or not. That guarantee could cost consumers billions of dollars for up to 30 years. Thanks to lobbying efforts, the conservative board members of MWDOC and your city council have no problem spending your money to underwrite what should be a completely privatized effort. C’mon, where is that entrepreneurial spirit?
Although the California Coastal Commission has delayed their vote on the issue, it has not gone away and is not likely to, in the near future. Poseidon has vowed to return with answers to all of their questions and the MWDOC, as lead agency and promoter of desalination, will push to the end. At some point, it will be the Commission who must make the final decision. Some factions, such as Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental group opposed to the project, have vowed to do what it takes to keep Poseidon from breaking ground.
It’s also interesting to note that the current Huntington Beach City Council, headed by Mayor Connie Boardman, attended the meeting to voice their opposition to the plant. Poseidon has promised 2,000 construction jobs, over a dozen permanent plant jobs and untold amounts of money coming into the city because of the project. Nonetheless, Boardman voiced the majority opinion of the city saying, “We wanted to make sure the costal commission knew the opinion of this city council was different.” Boardman would rather see investment in groundwater aquifiers which she sees as a better and less-costly alternative.
According to reports, there are more than a dozen desalination plants in the works along the coast. This could be the “energy” controversy of the 21st century much as nuclear energy was in the past. Although the ramifications may differ, the environmental concerns and future cost could make desalination yesterday’s buzzword.