The Poseidon desalination project was rejected

After hearing hours of heated debate, the California Coastal Commission voted against company Poseidon Water’s controversial plan to build a large desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Despite the worsening drought and repeated calls by Gov. Gavin Newsom to tap the Pacific Ocean as a source of drinking water, commissioners voted united against the plan on Thursday night. The decision, recommended by commission staff, could end the company’s plans for the $ 1.4-billion plant.

In refusing Poseidon’s permission, the commission demonstrated its independence from the Newsom administration and also sent the message that high costs, noise and dangers such as sea level rise could present major obstacles for large desalination plants off the coast of California.

The governor said California needs the desalination plant to cope with the severe drought, and he recently warns of a vote against the project would be a “big mistake.”

Activists, calling the proposal a boondoggle to privatize water infrastructure for profit, said the decision was a victory for regulation based on political reality.

The project was first proposed more than two decades ago, and the long -running feud covers a list of controversial issues. This includes the proposed impact on plant life in marine life, if it is vulnerable to sea level rise and heavy company political lobbying.

Before he votes Thursday night, Vice Chair Caryl Hart said the proposal raises a lot of concerns for him.

“This is a desal proposal for water privatization. It provides a huge private profit, ”Hart said. He agreed with agency staff and said the site was the wrong place to build a plant, in part because it was on top of an earthquake fault.

He also noted that the company still does not have an agreement from any water district requesting water. “It’s detrimental to the public interest,” he said.

Commissioner Dayna Bochco said she agreed with the staff’s findings and that the effects on marine life could be “an extraordinary amount of destruction.”

Meagan Harmon, one of the commission’s appointees, said the project would have “disproportionate impact on the weakest.”

“I hope I don’t have to take this vote. I am not against desalination, ”said Harmon.

In testimony leading up to the vote, Poseidon and its supporters argued that the construction of the desalination plant would strengthen the local water supply and make the area more stable. They cited severe drought in California and the western U.S. and higher temperatures brought on by global warming, pointing to the worsening shortage of imported water supply from the State Water Project and the Colorado River.

Opponents of Poseidon argue that desalinated water is unnecessary because northern Orange County has an adequate supply of groundwater and recycles its waste. They said the project would only benefit Canadian parent company Brookfield Infrastructure and its investors, while low -income people would be particularly hit by the rate hike.

“Seawater desalination should be the last resort,” said Tracy Quinn, president and chief executive of the environmental group Heal the Bay. He said there are better, more economical solutions to strengthen Orange County’s water supplies.

The company says costs have yet to be finalized, but that monthly water rates could rise by nearly $ 3 to $ 6 per household. Commission staff concluded that despite the lack of detailed information on costs, the increase in water rates for the project “will have an unequal impact on millions of low-income residents.”

When commission staff recommended rejecting the project last month, they written in their report that in this area of ​​Orange County, there is a “lack of a near -term demand for the project” and that other proposed water projects – including waste recycling – could be more cost -effective and seem able to meet the above planned demand. in the coming decades.

Opponents of the project were pleased with the unanimous vote.

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the wrong place, the wrong type of facility and basically a foreign corporation to privatize water,” said Andrea León-Grossmann, director of climate action for nonprofit group Azul.

Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, celebrated the victory after 12 years of fighting on the project.

“This is an important moment for the coast. It sends a message to those who want to privatize the water, who want to make unsustainable development on the coast,” Jordan said. “That’s why we have the Coastal Commission , to protect destructive projects like this.They are an independent body.They should not be taken in by any politician, no matter how powerful.It is their job, to observe science and law.Now it is happening that, and it’s a great time for the beach. ”

Poseidon Water responded with the defeat of a statementthanked Newsom and others for urging the commission to support the project.

“California continues to face a punitive drought, which is forever to be seen,” said Jessica Jones, the company’s director of communications. “We strongly believe this desalination project could have created a sustainable, drought-tolerant water source for Orange County, just like it is for San Diego County.”

More than 300 people filled a hearing room in Costa Mesa to hear testimony on the proposal and to express their opinion. Some held up signs that read “No Poseidon! There is no water on Wall Street! ” and “We don’t want it, we don’t need it” and “Fighting climate change; Support desal! ”

In testimony before the vote, some local water officials argued that the area needed water, while others strongly disagreed.

Doug Davert, board president of the East Orange County Water District, said Newsom was right and “we need a new water supply that will not prevent drought and be resistant to climate change.”

Irvine Ranch Water District leaders SAYS that water is not needed and that project approval will force communities to pay more for water that is not needed, increasing the cost for low-income communities. Paul Weghorst, the district’s executive director of water policy, called the proposal “a solution to finding a problem.”

During the meeting, agency staff detailed a list of reasons why they determined the permit should be denied, including risks ranging from sea level rise to risks that the construction would disrupt a adjacent toxic area.

State scientists detailed how the project could cause significant damage to fish larvae and plankton that make up the base of the marine food web. They said the company’s proposed environmental mitigation projects, including digging a canal, repairing coastal areas and installing an artificial reef, were not enough.

Two days before the meeting, Jennifer K. Roy, an attorney at the firm, emailed the commissioners with an attached document she described as an “Applicant-Proposed Staff Report.” tea DOCUMENTS prepared by the same Coastal Commission letterhead as the staff report, with the agency’s San Francisco address, Newsom name and state stamp.

The document states, “Staff Recommendation: Approval of conditions.”

That document drew condemnation from Poseidon’s opponents, who called the newly written report on the official letterhead dishonest and inappropriate.

At the start of the hearing, Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said she was talking to the company about the “inappropriate format” of the document.

“It’s not a good decision for the applicant to put it on the Coastal Commission’s letterhead, because it causes confusion,” Brownsey said. “We haven’t seen it before. We hope this is the last time we see it. ”

DJ Moore, an attorney at Poseidon Water, apologized for the confusion caused by the document.

Moore said there is a critical need for the project because water supplies are threatened by drought and climate change.

“Conservation isn’t enough,” Moore said. “Desalination provides a drought-proof local water supply.”

Last year, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board voted to approve a permit for Poseidon Water. Board review before covered by allegations of political interference in the administration of Newsom, lobbied by Poseidon.

Prior to the decision, Newsom was criticized by Poseidon’s opponents when he was photographed eating at a Napa Valley restaurant while celebrating a birthday to a friend lobbying for the company.

According to state records, the company has spent more than $ 979,000 on lobbying in California since 2019.

Poseidon Water proposed to build the plant using some of the AES Huntington Beach Energy Center’s existing infrastructure, including a 14-foot-wide intake that would take seawater from the ocean about 1,800 feet offshore. Under the proposal, the desalination plant would be able to produce up to 50 million gallons of drinking water per day.

The same plant 60 miles south of Carlsbad, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, has been producing drinking water since 2015. Water from the desalination plant, the largest in the country, is sold to San Diego County Water Authority under a 30 -year contract. Water accounts for about 10% of what is used by 3.3 million people in the area, and the Water Authority says the average monthly cost is about $ 5 per household.

Santa Barbara also has an operating desalination plant. And at Dana Point, the South Coast Water District is continuing with plans to build on Doheny Ocean Desalination Projectwhich prevents small marine life from being absorbed and killed by the flow of seawater through flat wells under the sea floor.

Jones, Poseidon Water’s director of communications, said in a statement before the vote that if the permit is denied, “the path is unclear for new major desalination projects in the state of California.”

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