As California battles a historic drought and a water crisis looms, the state’s coastline protection agency is poised to vote Thursday on whether it will allow a $1.4 billion desalination plant in Huntington Beach that would convert ocean water into municipal water for Orange County residents.
Poseidon Water, which has been trying to build the plant for decades, says it would be capable of producing up to 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, helping to make the region more drought resilient.
But desalination opponents argue less expensive and less harmful conservation tactics should be the first resort.
Charged with “protecting and enhancing” the state’s extensive coastline, the California Coastal Commission is an agency of 12 members appointed or chosen by state lawmakers and the governor. Ahead of the vote, its staff recommended against the facility, pointing in part to desalination’s incredible energy consumption, its impacts on marine life, projected sea level rise and the cost of the resulting water itself – with that cost being passed on to customers.
Commission staff did acknowledge in the report that its findings do not mean that the project is “unaprovable,” nor that it is completely against desalination, writing: “Staff acknowledge the need to develop new, reliable sources of water in southern California, and believe that well-planned and sited desalination facilities will likely play a role in providing these supplies.”
Desalination works by separating water molecules from salty seawater through reverse osmosis. The left over high-salinity brine is sent back to the ocean.
One plant of this scale – the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County – is already in service. Poseidon began operating that facility in late 2015, selling its entire output to the San Diego County Water Authority in a 30-year contract.
If Poseidon doesn’t get permit approval this time, the Huntington Beach project will be dead in the water.
“We have complied with every requirement in the coastal development act, and we are bringing a new climate resilient, high-quality water supply to very thirsty California,” Jessica Jones, Poseidon’s director of communications, told CNN. “This decision on Thursday is going to send a strong, strong message to the administration and to anyone looking to develop a seawater desalination plant in California or bring in any new water supply.”
Scientists reported earlier this year that the West’s current megadrought is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Southern Californians are already seeing unprecedented water restrictions ahead of the summer.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has voiced support for building the plant, noting California’s extended droughts and challenged water supply. He recently told the Bay Area News Group editorial board, “What more evidence do you need that you need to have more tools in the tool kit than what we’ve experienced? Seven out of the last 10 years have been severe drought.”
But those against the desalination plant argue there are other ways to battle the drought.
On its website dedicated to fighting the Huntington Beach plant, the non-profit Surfrider Foundation indicates the water the project would provide is not needed, calling the potential plant “a waste of money.”
In fact, research by the Pacific Institute, a water-focused think tank, found California could substantially reduce its urban water use by 30 to 48% with existing and cutting-edge technologies. In its recent report, the institute argued “water efficiency opportunities can be found across the state but are highest in the South Coast hydrologic region.” It pointed to solutions that cost very little compared to desalination, including increased wastewater recycling and stormwater capture – with about two-thirds of the region’s potential water savings coming from the residential sector.
“Seawater desalination is among the most expensive water supply options,” Heather Cooley, Pacific Institute’s director of research, told CNN. “From a cost perspective, from an environmental one, from an energy perspective, doing these other alternatives first makes the most sense for California.”
Yet as most of the western United States is experiencing unprecedented drought conditions, Poseidon’s Jones argues the Huntington Beach Desalination Plant will create more supply across the region by taking stress off the already thin-stretched Colorado River Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains water sources.
“By creating a new local water supply on the coast, it’s not just going to benefit residents of Orange County, but it’s alleviating the pressure on the imported water supply,” Jones said. “We need to look at the larger picture here, not just for California, but for all the states in the West.”