Poseidon optimism grows for desalination plant but several hurdles remain

10-04-2019 22:04

Poseidon officials, who’ve spent 21 years working toward approval of a controversial desalination plant in Huntington Beach, had a figurative bounce in their step as they emerged from yet another permitting agency meeting Friday.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board remains months away from voting on one of the final two permits needed by Poseidon. But the fact the board staff detailed a specific timeline for the board’s permit process — with a final vote penciled in for Oct. 25 — was seen by Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni interpreted that as a signal that board geologists, engineers and administrators are confident they can work through outstanding issues.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Maloni said.

At one point, the water board expected to vote last year, but ongoing issues continued to delay the approval process for a project touted as a drought-proof answer to the area’s water needs. Details still to be worked out include how the $1 billion plant will extract water from the ocean and how to mitigate the environmental damage it causes.

While the water board permit would be a big step forward, more approvals would be needed. Additionally, there continues to be opposition from both environmentalists and those concerned with the potential cost of Poseidon water.

If Poseidon wins the Regional Water Quality Control Board permit, it would then need a California Coastal Commission permit and a final contract with the Orange County Water District. The district would buy most — if not all — of Poseidon’s water and distribute it to its member agencies.

John Kennedy, the water district’s executive director of engineering and water resource, said that contract would likely include a contingency requiring the project win a multi-million dollar annual subsidy from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and purchase agreements from at least some of the water district’s member agencies.

[Update on April 10, 2019, based on follow-up correspondence with Kennedy: While OCWD would likely seek purchase agreements with member agencies for desalinated water, the agreements would not necessarily be required for OCWD to sign a contract with Poseidon. “If none of the member agencies want to take any Poseidon water, OCWD could still put all of the Poseidon water into the groundwater basin,” Kennedy said. But he also acknowledged that the ultimate decision would be up to the OCWD board in deciding whether to require at least some member agencies to sign up for the desalinated water as a condition an OCWD contract with Poseidon.]

Outstanding issues

Poseidon’s item on Friday’s water board agenda focused primarily on the continuing issue of how water would be extracted from the ocean.

A 2015 amendment to the state’s Ocean Plan says that desalination plants must use, if feasible, a subsurface intake system — that is, underground pipes extending beneath the ocean floor that suck seawater through the sand. That technology avoids the mortal threat to larvae, plankton and other small sea life when above-ground pipes take the water directly from the ocean.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board had previously agreed with Poseidon that the state’s preferred subsurface approach was not technically feasible for all of the 107 million gallons of sea water the company is proposing taking into its plant each day. Given the geology of the area, the more costly subsurface intake could contaminate neighboring freshwater aquifers with saltwater and could draw down water from Huntington Beach’s two wetlands, state geologist Scott Seyfried reiterated to the board Friday.

But Poseidon and the Regional Water Quality Control Board, assisted by Seyfried, have been examining a hybrid system that would use a combination of subsurface and direct intake. The preliminary conclusion is that just 3.5 percent of the 107 million gallons of seawater used daily could be extracted by a subsurface system without jeopardizing aquifers and wetlands, Seyfried said.

But he added that the water boards’ engineers and geologists were still evaluating the possibility. And two environmentalist activists urged the board to more thoroughly scrutinize the viability of the subsurface intake at the site.

“We don’t think there’s adequate information to make a decision at this time,” said OC Coastkeeper attorney Colin Kelly. He noted that while his group opposes the Poseidon project, it supports a proposal for a much smaller desalination plant — which would rely entirely on subsurface intake — just inland from from Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

Details also are still being worked out for how Poseidon would mitigate the environmental damage its plant would cause. The company has proposed paying for regular dredging of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands inlet, which has run out of funds previously set aside for that work.

Additionally, water board analysts are still examining possible locations for direct intake pipes and the environmental impacts of the outflow of the brine to be discharged from the plant.

Is it needed?

While OC Coastkeeper was unsuccessful in its recent lawsuit to force an entirely new environmental impact report for the project, that group and other Poseidon critics have been buoyed in their opposition by a study last fall that ranked the Poseidon plant at the bottom of five water projects being pursued throughout the county. Faring much better in the analysis was the smaller Doheny desalination proposal.

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Besides using subsurface intake, the Doheny plant would serve a south Orange County area far more dependent on imported water than the north- and central-county region that would be the primary beneficiary of Poseidon water.

If water from northern California and the Colorado River continues its current flow to Southern California, Poseidon water could end up costing customers nearly $400 million more than the imported water over the plant’s lifetime,  according to the study by the Municipal Water District of Orange County.

The Poseidon plant could produce as much as 56,000-acre feet a year — enough for about 450,000 of the 2.5 million residents served by the Orange County Water District. But the analysis said that’s far more than north and central Orange County would need. In the best case scenario without the Poseidon plant, there would be no shortages there — and in the worst case, shortages of 22,000-acre feet annually. The report sites a series of smaller planned projects that could meet that projected maximum shortfall.

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