Regional Water Board Approves Poseidon Permit, Coastal Commission to Weigh in Next

On April 29, the regional water board approved a permit Poseidon Water needed to move forward with a plan to turn the old AES power plant in Huntington Beach into a desalination plant; the project still needs Coastal Commission approval and Poseidon will still need to secure customers.

HUNTINGTON BEACH— Poseidon Water has been granted a permit from the local water board for its controversial desalination plant in Huntington Beach, a project that has been in the works for roughly two decades. Poseidon will still need to get approval from the California Coastal Commission in order to move forward with plans and will still need to finalize a purchase agreement with the Orange County Water District in order to have customers.

At the continued Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing on April 29, the board voted 4-3 to approve a permit for Poseidon’s project after discussing and clarifying language, mitigation, and discharge requirements. If approved, Poseidon’s proposed plant will be built at the old AES Huntington Beach Generating Station at Pacific Coast Highway and Newland Street. The plant will convert saltwater to roughly 50 million gallons of potable water daily.

“Poseidon and the Orange County Water District share a common motivation, to provide a reliable, drought-proof supply of drinking water at the lowest possible cost,” said Scott Maloni, vice president of Poseidon, at the April 29 meeting.

The board spent 12 hours hearing public comments and considering the project at a virtual public hearing on April 23. The discussion was continued to April 29 and ran for seven more hours.

One sticking point was centered around the mitigation projects, which include dredging the Bolsa Chica wetlands inlet, restoring portions of the wetlands, and creating a 41-acre reef offshore of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Water board staff had proposed a requirement that Poseidon get all necessary approvals for the mitigation projects before it would be allowed to discharge wastewater into the ocean.

Opponents of the project had raised concern over the fact that Poseidon has yet to begin its mitigation work at its plant in Carlsbad that began operation in 2015.

Maloni argued conditioning the discharge to begin only after mitigation projects had all necessary permits would make the project financially infeasible and was not necessary to assure Poseidon is incentivized to permit the mitigation efforts in a timely manner.

“The length of time needed to permit the Carlsbad mitigation project was normal and actually Poseidon was able to complete the process in less than the average time that it has taken similar other wetlands restoration projects,” said Maloni at the April 29 water board meeting.

He noted the San Diego regional water board was set to issue the final permit for the Carlsbad desalination plant mitigation project in the coming days.

The water board ultimately agreed to modify the requirement so that Poseidon only has to complete 60 percent of design plans and develop estimated timelines before beginning to discharge wastewater into the ocean. As part of the compromise, Poseidon proposed an amendment requiring them to set up a dedicated mitigation account where the funds needed to permit and construct the mitigation projects would be placed at financial close.

“We need to do our job on this as board members and that job is to minimize that period in which unmitigated discharge is going to take place,” said Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board Member Daniel Selmi.

Poseidon still faces several more hurdles, including an appeal of the permit approval from Orange County Coastkeeper.

“We’ve been working on the appeal even before the board voted,” said Gary Brown, founder and president of Orange County Coastkeeper.

Brown has been involved in fighting the project for the past 22 years. Brown and other opponents believe the project to be unnecessary, a detriment to lower-income families in Orange County, and not environmentally friendly. Brown also said he felt it was a high-financed political campaign based on return to investors.

Poseidon also still needs approval from the California Coastal Commission. Brown said the project could make it before the commission before the end of the year.

Poseidon will also need to work out a purchase agreement with the OCWD. In 2018, the OCWD approved a term sheet that indicated a desire to evaluate the ideal terms of a final agreement with Poseidon Water to purchase water from the Huntington Beach Desalination Facility but details still need be worked out, including an agreed-to price for the water and figuring out how to distribute the desalinated water.

“I don’t know how many more years this will go on, Poseidon thinks they’re at the end of the tunnel and I see two, three years and that’s without lawsuits,” said Brown.

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