Water Insecurity: Desalination Discussion Could Shape Future Policy

California Coastal Commission plans to discuss saltwater conversion at December meetings, ahead of potential vote on Poseidon.

STATEWIDE — California Coastal Commission’s final meeting of 2017 is expected to be a little salty, as the quasi-judicial agency’s staff is expected to make an informational presentation on seawater desalination, Dec. 13.

Specifics of presentation were unknown at the time this editorial was written, and commissioners won’t be taking any sort of action on whatever they do discuss. Yet the presentation’s timing is not random or coincidental – plans to build a massive desalination plant on the Huntington Beach coast could be in front of the Coastal Commission in the not too distant future.

Poseidon’s desalination plant plans cleared its first significant regulatory hurdle in October, when the State Lands Commission tossed its support in favor of the saltwater conversion venue. Two more approvals are needed before Poseidon can dig a shovel in the ground and begin construction. One of those two approvals must come from the Coastal Commission.

Perhaps the upcoming presentation will give us some insight as to what the Coastal Commission would require of Poseidon. We won’t know specifics, to be sure, of the commission’s position, as the Dec. 13 informational presentation is neither a deliberation nor a case for or against Poseidon’s plans.

What the Coastal Commission can do during its informational presentation is set the bar for Poseidon. Desalination, as The Log has previously reported, is not a silver bullet solution to California’s water insecurity, but converting saltwater to freshwater could certainly be a useful tool from the shed in our quest to withstand intense dry spells and recurring drought cycles. Certainly it’s not unreasonable to hope the Coastal Commission would moderate expectations and ensure Poseidon embarks on the most reasonable path to water security as possible.

The Log had already hashed some of the questions surrounding Poseidon’s saltwater conversion plan out in previous write-ups, such as whether it is sensible or responsible to spend $1.1 billion on a desalination plant to provide about 400,000 people with converted freshwater, or if the plant’s intake system would be hazardous to marine life.

Other questions to be asked included whether Poseidon has the best plan in place in terms of what it’ll do with the salt removed from the water and if there are other models state and regional agencies should be reviewing before validating the State Lands Commission’s Oct. 19 decision.

Plans to build a desalination plant in Dana Point, for example, reportedly carries a $100 million price tag – roughly 10 percent the cost of Poseidon’s plan. The plant would eventually provide about 15 million gallons of freshwater daily, compared to about 50 million gallons daily at Poseidon’s Huntington Beach plant.

This is not to say the costs associated with Dana Point’s desalination plant should be equally proportional with Poseidon’s plan in Huntington Beach, so $100 million for 15 million daily gallons converted freshwater doesn’t necessarily have to translate to $333.3 million for 50 million daily gallons of converted freshwater.

But $1.1 billion is a lot of money – the full burden of the cost eventually falling onto Orange County’s ratepayers. Would it be too much to ask the Coastal Commission to contemplate the most efficient cost strategies for desalination and require Poseidon to implement such efficiencies into its plan?

Cost concerns aside, commissioners must also deliberate whether Poseidon’s desalination plant project is consistent with California’s Coastal Act requirements, particularly with respect to plankton and other near-shore marine life.

“Minimizing environmental damage in the process of extracting fresh water from seawater is an important part of the desalination process. The intake of plankton such as the larvae of fishes and marine invertebrates often destroys it during the filtering process,” a 2008 article on intake pipes in desalination plants – published by Scripps Institution of Oceanography – stated. “Some portion of the destroyed larvae would have gone on to become adult fishes and invertebrates, meaning that their loss could damage the ecosystems from which they were removed.”

Poseidon’s executive team will – and most certainly should – be questioned about whether its Huntington Beach plans meet or exceed the Coastal Act’s environmental standards. Minimizing the desalination plant’s environmental hazards – of which there will be some – would go a long way in bolstering Poseidon’s efforts (even with the $1.1 billion price tag).

Salt disposal is yet another concern. Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers states one created gallon of freshwater requires two gallons of saltwater – potentially leaving behind byproduct with high salinity. What will the Coastal Commission require of Poseidon when it comes to disposing of such byproduct?

Of course there are several more questions to ask – and, hopefully, we’ll have some insight about what direction the Coastal Commission would head with respect to desalination, both in Huntington Beach and statewide.

California, after all, has endured and will continue to endure through extreme drought cycles, meaning creative solutions to the state’s water insecurity. What role desalination plays in California’s response to its drought cycles remains to be seen, but policymakers and private firms such as Poseidon will certainly seek saltwater conversion opportunities going forward – particularly with tens of thousands of desalination plants already operational worldwide.

A handful of desalination plants already exist along California’s coast, and the Coastal Commission could be reviewing several more saltwater conversion plans in the very near future – meaning the Dec. 13 presentation could influence the quasi-judicial agency’s upcoming policy considerations.

The Coastal Commission’s December meetings will be held Dec. 13-15 at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point; desalination is on the Dec. 13 agenda. Public comments could be submitted to commissioners leading up to the meeting. The public is encouraged to share their opinions. What role should desalination play in securing California’s water future?



There is still time to reach out to commissioners and Coastal Commission staff. The commission is accepting public comments through its website. Do you want your opinion to be heard?


John Ainsworth, Executive Director




Sarah Christie, Legislative Director




Dayna Bochco, California Coastal Commission Chair




Effie Turnbull-Sanders, California Coastal Commission Vice-Chair




Noaki Schwartz, Public Information Officer




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