What Happened: In 1998, Poseidon proposed a plan to build two desalination plants, one in Huntington Beach and one in Carlsbad. The plants would be located at existing power plants that were already using seawater to cool their generators.
In 2007, the Coastal Commission approved plans for the plant in Carlsbad, and in December of 2015, the plant began delivering water to the community. The plant produces 50 million gallons a day.
The City of Huntington Beach approved a Coastal Development Permit from Poseidon in 2006, and the permit was updated in 2011.
The commission held a hearing on the combined CDP in 2013, and commission staff recommended approval of the project with 21 special conditions added, at which time Poseidon withdrew its application.
On July 18, 2018, the project had a win when the Orange County Water District passed a non-binding agreement in a 6-2 vote.
In 2020 the project went through several workshops with The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board and came up for a vote in 2021.
On April 29, 2021, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board approved a permit for Poseidon’s project in a 4-3 vote.
During the hearing, the water board agreed to modify the requirement so Poseidon would only need to complete 60 percent of design plans for mitigation measures and would need to provide a timeline of when procedures would be implemented.
When the plan in Carlsbad was approved in 2007, a mitigation plan was attached, requiring Poseidon to implement mitigation standards. Mitigation practices included restoration of the Otay River floodplain in the South San Diego Bay National Reserve and Tijuana Estuary, the mitigation plans were approved by the commission in May 2019 and have yet to be met.
Poseidon agreed to the measures for the water board for the Huntington plant and then added that they would create an amendment requiring them to set up an account dedicated to mitigation practices.
The next step for Poseidon was to submit an application for a Coastal Development Permit to the California Coastal Commission and secure a purchase contract for the water.
“Poseidon Water has a lengthy 15-year history of working cooperatively with the Coastal Commission on the permitting of the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Project,” said Poseidon Water Vice President and Project Manager Scott Maloni in a July 9, 2021, press release. “As California continues to grapple with climate change-induced drought and wildfires we remain committed to building on the success of our Claude ‘Bud’ Lewis Carlsbad Desalination facility by delivering Southern California a second large-scale, environmentally responsible and cost-effective desalination facility in Orange County.”
The application was completed on Jan. 24, and a hearing was set for March 17, which was ultimately postponed until May 12.
What’s on Tap: In a hearing on May 12, the California Coastal Commission ultimately denied Poseidon’s permit, citing that their impact on the environment went directly against the commission’s mandate to uphold the California Coastal Act.
During the hearing, staff gave a report and recommendation to deny the Poseidon permit citing several environmental hazards, including sea-level rise, which was much lower when the project was originally pitched in 1998, and concerns for the wildlife that would be affected by Poseidon’s intake of seawater.
“This project raises significant and complex coastal protection policy issues under both the Coastal Act and the City’s LCP,” said the staff report. “Including conformity with policies that require protection of marine life, water quality, environmentally sensitive habitat areas, and policies meant to avoid or minimize hazards associated with sea level rise, floods, tsunamis, and geologic hazards. It also raises significant issues related to potential effects on environmental justice communities, although the lack of information about the ultimate buyer of, and cost for, Poseidon’s water made it impossible to fully assess these effects.”
Staff said the project would pull in 106.7 million gallons of seawater per day through a screened intake pipe and then discharge 57 million gallons of high-salinity brine per day into the ocean using high-velocity diffusers.
The diffusers are needed to ensure the brine doesn’t just sink to the floor and create a dead zone, but the velocity of the discharge is high enough to kill marine life in about 168 million gallons of the receiving waters each day. The facility, in total, would kill marine life in about 100 billion gallons of seawater per year, resulting in substantial losses of marine ecosystem productivity and reduced water quality, all of which would require significant mitigation.
Several tribal leaders in the area consulted with the commission about the negative impacts of Poseidon’s project on the environment and the lack of tribal involvement in the process even though the project would have a significant impact on tribal land.
On the other hand, Attorney D.J. Moore spoke on behalf of Poseidon and argued that they would put mitigation plans in place to protect sea life and that having a desalination plant in Orange County was critical to combatting the devastating drought taking place in California.
Several community leaders came forward, citing the necessity of the plant to provide potable drinking water for the community, including Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, who praised Poseidon’s work in Carlsbad.
Currently, all 58 counties are under a drought emergency proclamation in California, and 50 percent of Orange County’s water is imported from the Colorado River and 43 percent from the Sierra Nevada, which was the main argument for the plant.
After ten hours of testimony from both sides, the Coastal Commission had a short deliberation period that ended in a unanimous 11-0 vote to deny the permit.