Hundreds of people gathered at the Huntington Beach City Hall yesterday to attend the State Land Commission (SLC) hearing, one of three major meetings to determine if the Poseidon desalination project will move forward. The SLC consists of three members—Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Controller Betty Yee, and Finance Director Michael Cohen. The job of the regulatory body is to provide the people of California with effective stewardship of the lands, waterways, and resources entrusted to its care through preservation, restoration, enhancement, responsible economic development, and the promotion of public access.
The meeting stretched just short of 10 hours before the three commissioners agreed to approve the amendments made to the project’s 2010 Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The SLC also decided to renew Poseidon’s lease to use underground pipes that already lie between the power plant and the ocean. With one regulatory permit secured, the proposed desal project is but two hearings away from being approved for construction.
Protesters lined the steps holding signs that read “Dear Commission Please Hold Up Your Mission” and “I Love Plankton.” Indigenous people performed native dances in colorful feather headdresses while carrying signs that read “Protect Our Coast” and “No HB Desal.” Percussionists played in a drum circle bringing tribal sounds to the hearing as well.
When the Orange County Water District (OCWD) held meetings in regards to the project, those who came on behalf of Poseidon always wore black suits, white shirts and ties. Thus, they were easily identifiable. And at the hearing yesterday, the same applied. There was a stark contrast between those who came to rep Poseidon and those who opposed the project. Most of the environmentalists, or opponents, wore white shirts or apparel representing their groups, while many of the supporters were dressed in typical corporate Poseidon attire.
The four hours of public comments showed how evenly divided the opponents and supporters were. And there were heavy hitters on both sides who spoke to the commissioners. Notorious Poseidon lobbyist, Barbara Boxer, was easily Poseidon’s strongest proponent who spoke to the commission. “I respect everybody’s views, I always have,” the former U.S. Senator said. “For my whole career I’ve been an environmentalist, but I do not understand why there is so much opposition to this project.”
Boxer went on to explain that she knew fires and droughts were in the cards for humanity a decade ago. “People have a right to their opinion,” she said, “But they don’t have a right to the facts…We’ve seen [desalination] work in [Carlsbad] and we’ve seen it work in Israel. We’ve seen it succeed around the world.”
What Boxer failed to note was how many citations Poseidon’s racked up from their Carlsbad desal plant. Since it opened in late 2015, the plant’s been fined 15 times for polluting the area. Three OCWD board members— Cathy Green, Stephen Sheldon and Shawn Dewayne—also spoke on behalf of Poseidon. Former OCWD board member Jordan Brandman (who was also dressed in the classic Poseidon suit-and-tie get up) addressed the commission asking them to approve the EIR and move forward with the project, too.
One of the shocking Poseidon supporters was OC environmental group Amigos De Bolsa Chica. We found this baffling because of the long, drawn out process the Amigos endured in order to save the wetlands just north of Huntington Beach—similar to what the environmentalists opposing the desal project are going through. In fact, the similarities between the two projects are striking.
Not only is marine life in danger if the desal plant comes to fruition, but the proposed project site is in a flood zone. And over the last month-and-a-half we’ve seen how devastating floods can be. The plant is also said to pollute the air and contaminate the water with concentrated salty brine. Although Bolsa Chica was never subjected to brine, the proposed real estate development project would have destroyed habitats, marine life and contaminated the environment—just as the desal plant will. The Poseidon project is also trying to build on wetlands—what has become of the Amigos?
Orange County Coastkeeper’s Associate Director of Programs, Ray Hiemstra, spoke to the commission pointing out how flawed the project is. “Screens like the one Poseidon wants to install are faulty and known to clog,” he explained. “The brine discharged from the plant will kill marine life.”
He told the SLC that, instead of desal, OC needs to implement water conservation measures in order to take care of the county’s water demand. “We’re wasting more water every day than this plant would produce… Conservation still has a long way to go.”
Members of the Latinx community opposed the project, too. Despite all the hype the Register‘s given Poseidon a via the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI), there were a number of OC Latinx’s—yes, even from the Oakview community, the area in which the WCVI targets— explaining that Poseidon water is not an affordable option.
Debbie Cook, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, presented a killer presentation to the commissioners pinpointing exactly why Poseidon is problematic. “It should be the community, not Poseidon, who determines how much water is needed, how much should be produced and what technology is used,” she said. “Poseidon has turned this process on its head.”
The hearing wasn’t just long—it was grueling. There was an older gentleman who sang his opposition to the commission rather than speak it. He’s a perfect example of what happens to people’s brains after having to sit through a 10 hour hearing over a project that’s so obviously flawed.
Despite the flaws, the SLC moved the project forward by approving Poseidon’s EIR and renewing the lease to use the already existing pipes. The next hearing victory Poseidon needs is the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is dated for May 2018. After that, they’ll need the good graces of the California Coastal Commission. So the fight’s not over yet.
“Gavin Newson is running for Governor and that was obvious in his decision to support the project,” Hiemstra said after the meeting. “He does not want to cross the labor unions and went out of his was to praise Poseidon’s paid lobbyist, Barbara Boxer. Apparently she is more important to him than the over 150 awesome community members who showed up to say no to Poseidon. But it ain’t over until it’s over.”