The California Coastal Commission dealt a setback this week to Poseidon, a company trying to build a $900 million ocean water desalination plant in Huntington Beach. It is a setback, but it is unlikely to defeat the corporation’s 15-year effort.
Poseidon Resources Vice President Scott Maloni said the company would resubmit its application after completing studies of the ocean floor as required by the commission in its latest review. An estimated 127 million gallons of seawater will likely be required to produce roughly 50 million gallons of freshwater daily.
“Because we get to continue to demonstrate that we believe that this is a feasible site using feasible technology, the commission gets the additional studies they want,” Maloni told KPCC radio following the hearing. “This project has taken us 15 years. We’re not going to just go away. We’re going to spend the time it takes to obtain the permits we need, and this allows us that opportunity.”
The hearing Nov. 13 was packed with more than 300 environmental activists opposed to the Huntington Beach facility, including the city’s mayor Connie Boardman. Boardman and a majority of the current city councilmembers oppose the plant even though a former city council already granted approval several years ago. Following more than a decade of lawsuits and challenges, a permit from the California Coastal Commission is virtually the last step before breaking ground.
“We wanted to make sure the coastal commission knew the opinion of this city council was different,” said Boardman who would rather see investment to replenish groundwater aquifers than the costly and high-energy consuming process of seawater desalination.
“People are realizing that we have this great groundwater replenishment system in Orange County,” Boardman said. “It’s proven technology, it’s working and it’s much cheaper than desalination. And it can be expanded. There’s adequate water through 2035. We’re not running out of water. We’re not over drafting our aquifers. Certainly groundwater is a lot cheaper than either imported or desalinated water and overall water usage is down.”
Several things have also changed since the Huntington Beach city council approved the project including water purchase agreements that do not look as favorable as first promised. Orange County officials watched how deals played out between Poseidon and San Diego County where the company has already begun building a similar plant in Carlsbad.
In trying to win public support, Poseidon representatives had promised to sell desalinated water at the same price as imported water, which is currently about $1,200. But the San Diego County Water Authority basically said that wasn’t possible given the market so they adopted a purchase agreement that many view as a sweetheart deal for the private corporation that sets the price of desalinated water at $2,100.
The water authority also agreed to buy 48,000 acre-feet per year whether they needed it or not, with provisions to raise rates by up to three percent per year and another ten percent annually up to 30 percent for unforeseen consequences, such as possible new state regulations that prohibit the kind of surface-water intake employed by the plant.
“I think when the people of Orange County saw that, they weren’t interested anymore,” said Joe Geever, who’s been following the issue closely for many years for the Surfrider Foundation.
In 2009, Poseidon signed non-binding agreements with more than a dozen Orange County municipalities and the county water authority to buy desalinated water. But that was before the San Diego deal was fully crafted. In the company’s latest bid to win Coastal Commission approval, it solicited new Memos of Understanding (MOU), but with much less success, according to Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach mayor who’s been tracking the issue.
Cities like Garden Grove, which first expressed interest in 10,000 acre-feet per year, are not interested anymore, Cook said. The Irvine Ranch Water District, another example Cook references, had initially said they wanted 5,000 acre feet of desalinated water, but in its new MOU calls for just 100 acre feet and only if it’s sold at the same price as imported flows.
The Santa Margarita Water District is the only one to renew its agreements with Poseidon. Roger Faubel, the District’s former director, had been a paid consultant to Poseidon. Faubel’s lawyer, William R. Mitchell, flatly denies that his client’s resignation from the SMWD was related in any way to his work for Poseidon or any potential conflicts of interest. Mitchell said Faubel reported his income from Poseidon in form 700 filed with California’s Political Practices Commission starting in 2006 and again in 2009, 2010,and 2012.
Without purchase agreements from area water districts, Poseidon must rely on a larger agreement as it did in San Diego, but this time with the Orange County Water District that would then in turn sell the water to other agencies. In September, the board voted to “study the economic feasibility” without making any final decisions on purchasing.
From Poseidon’s perspective, it is in good standing with the board. According to the OC Weekly, two of the ten board members are close Poseidon allies.
“Director Stephen Sheldon, is a former paid Poseidon consultant and President Shawn Dewane chairs CalDesal, an organization which employs lobbyists to advocate on behalf of the desalination industry,” according to the paper. “Two other OCWD directors, Cathy Green and Denis Bilodeau have in recent years accepted between them $3,000 in Poseidon campaign contributions.”
Cook believes the only reason the water district even considers Poseidon’s desal proposals are the conflicts of interest. “The real reason is we don’t need the water. Orange County can get 75 percent of its water from the ground,” Cook said. “We don’t have the same problem that San Diego has where they import 100 percent. It’s really mind boggling to me that anyone who’s half intelligent would think we need this considering that groundwater replenishment is half the cost of desalination. It’s because of the conflicts of the people who are making money off Poseidon.”
Earlier this year, the Pacific Institute studied the reported cost of desalination compared to recycling and reuse. A look at 15 reverse osmosis plants around the world revealed the average energy consumption for ocean water desalination to be roughly 1,400 kw/acre-foot compared to imported water to San Diego, for instance, which takes about 700 kw/acre-foot to deliver. “I think the debate is about what does that mean? Does it mean we don’t pursue it at all, or do we mitigate it as much as possible?” said Heather Cooley, a Pacific Institute analyst.
Randy Truby, past president of the International Desalination Association and long-time membrane engineer, disputes those findings. He said taking into account how much energy it takes to transport reused or recycled water, ocean water desalination is about the same in consumption.
“There is absolutely more energy consumption on the seawater but there are other costs on the recycled that raises the costs,” said Truby, who points to a demonstration by the Affordable Desalination Collaboration at the U.S. Navy Seawater Desalination Test Facility in Port Hueneme that showed desalination could match the energy use. Truby said a recent plant built in Trinidad has improved the quality of life and they are now expanding the plant.
“Their rates of consumption have gone up significantly,” Truby said. “People have gotten used to having that water. A lot of those places for years had double plum systems where only part of their house had drinking water. As water becomes available, people start to use it and it improves the quality of life.”
In Southern California, where two-thirds or more of the freshwater is imported at already high energy costs, those opposed to desalination believe much more can be done to conserve and reuse.
“Depending on the weather, we’re discharging 1.5 to 3 billion gallons per day of wastewater into the ocean that’s already partially treated,” Geever said. “If you spend a little bit of extra money and energy and added a system for portable reuse, the volumes you could get are astronomical.”