Five last-minute questions about the Poseidon Water project

After 20-plus years of planning and negotiating and politicking, Poseidon Water’s bid to transform ocean water off Huntington Beach into tap water for much of central Orange County is about to face a make-or-break test.

The California Coastal Commission is expected to vote Thursday, May 12 on the company’s application to build a $1.4 billion desalination plant at a site in Huntington Beach during a public hearing in Costa Mesa.

While other issues would need to be resolved before Poseidon could be a full go – including which water agencies will agree to be the company’s final customers – supporters and opponents alike say the ruling Thursday will go a long way to determine if one of the nation’s biggest proposed desalination plants is ever built. The vote also might set a path for other desalination projects in Southern California.

The pros and cons of the Huntington Beach plant seem simple enough: Supporters say the 50-million-gallon-a day project will be a drought-resistant way to produce local water even when other sources go dry; opponents say it will degrade the environment in a misguided effort to produce expensive, unneeded water.

Last month, the staff scientists who work for the Coastal Commission issued a report urging the agency’s 12-member board to vote against the project. But that recommendation is one of many factors in play and the board is free to go a different direction.

So, with that in mind, here are some key questions that will be debated when Poseidon supporters, opponents and the commission board members gather at the Hilton Orange County hotel in Costa Mesa.

Is Poseidon’s water going to be needed?

That’s still unclear, and that uncertainty remains one of the biggest factors driving the Poseidon debate.

Supporters argue, correctly, that California and much of the western U.S. are mired in a long-term drought, maybe the worst on record. Those same supporters and climate scientists also say that global warming is rapidly making our current conditions the norm, and going forward the key sources of water currently imported into Orange County – everything from the Sierra snowpack to the Colorado River – aren’t guaranteed to remain reliable.

The Poseidon project in Huntington Beach would be a partial solution. The plant would transform 106.7 million gallons of ocean water into about 50 million gallons of potable water every day, enough for 400,000 people in central and north Orange County.

That wouldn’t be a cure-all in a county with about 3.2 million water drinkers, but backers of the project note that the Pacific isn’t going away, even during a mega-drought. They also say the process of turning the ocean into tap water is a reliable, proven technology currently used in places as near as Carlsbad and as distant as the United Arab Emirates.

“We need more tools in the damn tool kit,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a recent meeting with the Bay Area News Group’s editorial board when asked why he supports the Poseidon project.

Then, referencing the need to prepare for a water-scarce future, Newsom added: “We’re as dumb as we want to be.”

But critics – including environmental groups, Coastal Commission staff and many water experts – say Poseidon’s water won’t be needed in the community it hopes to serve.

Poseidon’s initial wholesale customer would be the Orange County Water District, which stores water and distributes it to other agencies that deliver water to about 2.5 million people who live in central and north county. Though the district gets its supply from the Santa Ana River and one of nation’s biggest groundwater basins, it also uses treated wastewater to service about 1 million people.

The technology to turn wastewater into drinking water wasn’t as widely used when Poseidon was conceived, but it’s cheaper than desalination and potentially as reliable. Next year, new state regulations could make wastewater a more feasible water source for more people.

That’s one of the reasons why critics say the Poseidon plant isn’t necessary.

In a 2018 study, the Municipal Water District of Orange County found that less than half of Poseidon’s water would be needed in a worst case future crisis, and added it is possible that none of the water will ever be needed.

And in March, the Irvine Ranch Water District – a key potential user of Poseidon’s water – voted against becoming involved in the project, saying less expensive, more environmentally friendly options remain on the table.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Paul Cook, general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District, referencing the Poseidon project during a recent public event.

How much will Poseidon Water cost?

Everybody arguing about Poseidon agrees that desalinating the ocean is more expensive than other ways of collecting or generating potable water. But how much more, and how long that price gap might last, remain open questions.

Officials from Poseidon say central and north county water users would see their bills go up $3 to $6 a month when the company’s project goes online, possibly by 2027. But Poseidon’s estimate has remained consistent for several years, even as other conditions have shifted. It’s unclear if that estimate is still accurate.

The Coastal Commission’s staff report from April suggested users could be in for sticker shock if the Poseidon project is approved.

“Although Poseidon has stated that its water would add $3 to $6 per month to the average water bill, the actual costs remain unknown, though would likely be higher.”

And even if the price jump is less than $10 a month, the staff report adds, bigger bills for an essential expense like water will hit some people particularly hard.

“… The water rate hike would disproportionately impact millions of low-income residents throughout OCWD’s service area, the majority of which are people of color.”

Would it harm the environment?

The process of sucking water out of the ocean, along with the filtration system preferred by Poseidon and the follow-up process of sending briny, treated water back into the ocean, would degrade the ecosystem closest to the ocean pipes used by the Huntington Beach plant.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of several agencies that has approved the Poseidon project, offered specifics, estimating that the net harm to marine life near the water pipes would equal “a loss of productivity from 423 acres of nearshore and estuarine waters each year.”

Poseidon officials don’t dispute that the process is harmful to a relatively small stretch of ocean, though they point out that other sources of water – particularly imports from Northern California and the Colorado River – also degrade the environment.

But in exchange for being allowed to build the plant in Huntington Beach, Poseidon has pledged to pay for other environmental projects, including improvements to sensitive habitats like the Bolsa Chica estuary and the creation of a new man-made reef off Palos Verdes. The idea is that the combined benefits of those projects would outweigh the environmental harm associated with the desalination plant.

But that notion, too, remains a source of controversy.

Poseidon and Coastal Commission staff have haggled about different offset ideas for years without reaching a specific plan. The staff report from April says the company submitted some new proposals earlier this year, but suggested that it would be many years before any of those projects – if they’re ever completed – might actually help the planet more than the Huntington Beach plant harms it.

The staff report also took aim at the history of a specific wetlands project Poseidon was supposed to launch in exchange for approval of its Carlsbad plant, which started producing water in late 2015.

“After many years of planning and permitting, Poseidon has still not started construction of this mitigation project as of April 2022. As a result, the Carlsbad plant has been operating for six years without mitigation in place, resulting in significant long-term losses to the state’s marine resources … a deficit that will continue to grow until mitigation site construction is completed.”

Poseidon said Wednesday that it has hired contractors to begin work on the wetlands project, and that the process of getting government approval and reaching consensus with partners has taken longer than once projected.

What about climate change?

Here’s an irony: The same phenomenon driving the need for new water sources, and a push for desalination in general, might also play a role in nixing the proposal in Huntington Beach.

Poseidon would build its water processing plant on a 54-acre parcel about 1,500 feet from the ocean. In recent years, the staff report noted, that parcel’s vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis has become better known and the risks of building on the site are “much more severe” than once believed.

What’s more, the parcel also might be vulnerable to the effects of global warming, depending on how high the ocean rises over the 50 to 60 years the plant is expected to operate.

The report notes that because Poseidon’s plant would store “tens of thousands of gallons of dangerous chemicals” on-site, any damage – sudden or gradual – could result in “significant adverse effects to human health, water quality, and nearby habitats.”

Would a no vote end desalination in California?

In theory, no, but in reality, it might.

Poseidon officials have argued that a vote to reject their project in Huntington Beach would signal the end of big desalination projects in California. And the example presented in that scenario – a company getting zero return after spending more than 20 years and an estimated $100 million in development, lobbying and other costs – probably wouldn’t encourage others to jump into desalination.

But people who oppose the project in Huntington Beach disagree with that company’s broader assessment. As proof they point to the fact that Coastal Commission hasn’t vetoed the technology, approving 16 different desalination projects, ranging from big commercial plants like Poseidon’s operation in Carlsbad to tiny desalters in places like San Nicolas Island, a military-controlled island in Ventura County.

What’s more, while some of the environmental groups hoping to block Poseidon in Huntington Beach also take a dim view of desalination in general, that opinion is far from universal.

“We’re not against desalination,” said Ray Hiemstra, associate director of programs for Orange County Coastkeeper.

“We oppose the project in Huntington Beach, the specifics,” he added. “But desalination can work if it’s done right.”

Even the Coastal Commission staff report suggests that if Poseidon is turned down, desalination has a future.

“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.”