At the November 13th California Coastal Commission hearing, the Coastal Commission postponed a decision on Poseidon Water's proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant. While the Commissioners said they see desalination as part of our water future, it has to be done right without significant impacts to the environment. When the Commissioners commenced deliberating after a nine-hour hearing, it was apparent there was not the support for the project as proposed. The Commission staff and Commissioners Zimmer and Bochco berated Poseidon for their shortcomings, including their questionable ethics and refusing to work with Commission staff when requested. Poseidon ended up withdrawing their application for a Coastal Development Permit to go back to the drawing board with new studies, including considerations for a new location for the plant site.
Hundreds of people, from union representatives to concerned citizens, showed up in support of and opposition to this project. Proponents advocated for the project around water supply reliability, and opponents asserted the lack of need and harm the project would cause to the marine environment. To offset the project's marine life impacts, the Coastal Commission staff report recommended that Poseidon use subsurface intakes instead of their original plans to utilize the AES power plant's open ocean intake pipes. In 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board passed the Once-Through Cooling (OTC) Policy, a resolution requiring power plants to cease the use of open ocean intakes for once-through-cooling by 2020. This action was a result of the overwhelming evidence that open ocean intakes have serious negative impacts to marine resources. The project's Environmental Impact Report states that the open ocean intakes will impinge and entrain more than 80 million fish larvae, eggs and invertebrates each year. Poseidon argued that this impact is insignificant; in return, Coastal Commission staff scientist Tom Luster explained how their interpretation is wrong by providing the basics of a food web.
The feasibility of subsurface intakes was a major topic of discussion throughout the hearing as the subject brought forth many more problems facing Poseidon. One of the concerns we presented to the Commissioners attention is that Poseidon's entire business model is to co-locate with existing coastal power plants. They have not, and refuse to change this original model in order to consider the best available technology. The Coastal Commission staff highlighted the fact that out of more than a dozen studies Poseidon needed to complete, they had only completed two. One of those reports was prepared by Nikolay Voutchkov, former Senior Vice President for Technical Services for Poseidon Resources. Commissioner Zimmer was not pleased with this conflict of interest and Poseidon's questionable ethics. She and Commission Chair Shallenberger also brought up Poseidon's past revocations for providing false information to the Commission.
Poseidon's Vice President, Scott Maloni, was quoted after the hearing saying that:
I don't think it will take very long to conduct the studies themselves, because ultimately the Commission staff has to determine whether they feel the studies are adequate. We will probably resubmit right away to start the process, and then we will start the studies.
In reality, this will most likely take several years, and millions of dollars more than what they have already spent in this 15-year process leading up to the Coastal Commission hearing. A major factor is that any acceptable non-polluting system to intake seawater will cost hundreds of millions of dollars as compared to being able to use the existing open ocean intake pipe. This will cause the desalinated water to be even more expensive than what was already proposed. It is questionable if Poseidon's investors will continue their quest in Huntington Beach or pull the plug.
Towards the end of the hearing, Commissioner Zimmer offered up this sentiment, "If Poseidon cannot recalibrate themselves to the 21st century, then they need to take their business model someplace else." And Commission Chair Shallenberger's final words were for Poseidon to work with Commission staff, especially since they would not be in this situation if they had cooperated from the very beginning. Moving forward on the discussions surrounding water supply reliability, what we need to do is use water wiser. Conservation measures such as reducing the amount of potable water wasted on turf grass is a great start. Stormwater capture is another viable supply option we can explore that has positive environmental effects. Many thanks to those who fought alongside Coastkeeper in this battle: Surfrider Foundation, Residents for Responsible Desalination, Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, National Resources Defense Council, Heal the Bay, Desal Response Group, the many concerned Huntington Beach residents and Orange County ratepayers.