Twelve years ago, the Weekly published an article titled “The Poseidon Misadventure,” a list of 10 reasons why the Poseidon Resources-lead desalination project in Huntington Beach should be killed off.
It seemed so obvious then. Who would want to build an energy-intensive desalination plant that would create 50 million gallons of fresh water per day just years after a power shortage and a giant El Niño? And whoever bought the water would be on the hook, whether or not it was needed. Plus, the water the plant would produce was much more expensive than then-current prices, it would be horrible for the environment, and it'd be another industrial project right on one of Orange County's beaches. It just didn't make any sense. We put 10 bullets in the abomination and let it be.
But then the next decade happened. Southern California is now in the grip of a severe drought, with climatologists, water experts and even NASA scientists releasing alarming reports about the depletion of the region's groundwater supply (see Matt Coker's “An Inconvenient Thirst,” Nov. 12, 2004). Meanwhile, Poseidon has pumped millions of dollars into a public-relations campaign, lobbying and political contributions. Now, the company is just one permit away from breaking ground on the facility, and it may soon even find a buyer for the water.
In January, the Orange County Water District (OCWD), one of the many municipal bodies helping to manage Orange County's water resources, told its staff to work with Poseidon to negotiate a rate sheet to buy all 56,000 acre-feet of water per year it would produce (one acre-foot is approximately 300,000 gallons, or enough water for three average California families of four to use for about a year). In just days, that sheet is expected to be submitted to the board of directors. While desalinated water might be an easier sell now that winter is basically summer with less sun, the desalination facility is still just as bad of an idea as it's always been. (The Weekly initially contacted Poseidon on Feb. 20 through a website contact form. We received a call within the hour, promising someone would speak with us the following Monday. After that, Poseidon has not responded despite more than six calls and another form email.)
This project should have died in 2003, but it's still alive, and its potential dangers–the cost to rate payers and threat to the environment–are even worse.
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The site of Poseidon's proposed desalination project is classic Southern California coastline. Framed by dozens of palm trees, it sits just across the Pacific Coast Highway from the sand and north of the Santa Ana River's outlet into the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach. The facility would share the lot that houses the city's most prominent coastal eyesore, the AES natural-gas-fired Huntington Beach Generating Station (you might know it better as the two hulking, skeletal-looking cubical structures near Newland). The new plant would sit in the back of the lot, adjacent to a storm-water discharge channel and away from beach view.
One hundred million gallons of seawater would flow through Poseidon's pumps each day, first through screens and meshes to remove sand and other debris, and then blasted at pressures nearly 100 times higher than Earth's atmosphere through a series of reverse-osmosis filters, removing the salt. Fifty million gallons of brine, twice as salty as intake seawater, would return to the ocean, as the other 50 million gallons of water would be added to Orange County's water system, enough to provide for approximately 7 percent of Orange County's water needs.
Incongruously bordering the location is the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, where a team of volunteers rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned California wildlife daily. Behind that building, there's a gate leading to where you can take a short hike in the area's wetlands. On most days, surfers park their cars along PCH, just four lanes from the proposed location. During weekends, families are everywhere, enjoying the sometimes calm, but often rough waters and near-perpetual sun of one of Orange County's most central beaches. Just 2 miles north of the site are the city's new hotels and a bustling, if not a little bro-y, downtown.
It's here where many of the desalination plant's critics say the project will have the most negative effects. When originally conceived, Poseidon pitched its desalination plant as not that much worse for the environment than what was already there. The plant's original 1998 design piggybacks on already-active seawater intake and outtake pipes used by the AES power plant to cool its steam generators. There's no arguing the pipes are bad for the environment–they take in and kill more than 80 million fish eggs annually, according to a 2013 report by the California Coastal Commission (CCC).
Open-ocean water cooling is so universally recognized as bad for the environment that in 2010, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) adopted a policy that would phase out these intakes for coastal power plants by 2020. And therein lies a major problem for Poseidon. If the desalination facility is constructed using current designs, those outdated intakes and outtakes would stay functioning for an additional 30 years, and the positive environmental impact that would be gained from the closing of the pipes would be lost.
“The project's largest and most significant adverse effect on marine life would result from its proposed use of an open intake,” reads a 2013 report by the CCC. “Poseidon's initial proposal, from 1998, was to use cooling water discharged from the power plant's existing open water intake. The advantages of that proposal have largely disappeared because of the SWRCB's requirement that cooling water use be phased out and because of the power plant's plan to retire the use of cooling water through that intake by 2020.”
In fact, the intake's effects on the environment could actually get worse as marine life grows on the structures, clogging the pipe. Still unaddressed is how Poseidon would keep the intake and outtake clean after the AES plant stops using them at the end of 2018, when part of the company's new, air-cooled energy project is scheduled to come online. Currently, AES runs hot water created by the power-generation process through the pipes for a few hours every month and a half to kill and wash away any marine life that may clog them. After 2018, Poseidon would have to find an alternative way to keep the lines clear.
Without the ability to run hot water, Poseidon would have to resort to mechanical or chemical means, such as physically scrubbing away the marine life or poisoning it using high concentrations of chemicals such as chlorine, copper, ozone or bromine. These methods could possibly pollute ocean water further, but since Poseidon has yet to pick a method, its potential environmental impacts cannot be studied. More important, because the pipes are so large, most of these methods wouldn't even work.
“Given the size of the Huntington Beach intake structure–about 14 feet in diameter and 1,500 feet long–these alternatives either do not appear feasible or would cause additional adverse effects that have not been addressed,” reads the CCC report, which notes that the pipes are too large for most cylindrical cleaning devices known as “pigs,” which are used to scrape sediment from the pipes. “Using chemical methods at Huntington Beach,” the report adds, “would require substantial 'dosing' to be effective in an intake of this size–the intake holds about 1.8 million gallons of seawater, which would require a substantial amount of chemicals to treat.”
One possible way to mitigate this issue would be to switch to a system that draws water from reservoirs located under the sea floor, avoiding not only the need to clean the intake of marine life that would grow on the pipes, but also the vacuuming of much of the fish eggs and plankton. However, when this alternative was broached in a Nov. 13, 2013, CCC meeting in Newport Beach, Poseidon balked at the concept, calling it an unfeasible “poison pill” that would completely derail the project due to its cost, which has yet to be determined.
After nine hours' worth of public comments, many of which came from supporters of environmental groups Surfrider Foundation and Orange County Coastkeeper, and facing an obviously un-winnable vote, Poseidon withdrew its coastal development permit application at the 11th hour. Despite the posturing, however, the company has agreed to continue working with the CCC to study the feasibility of proposed alternate intakes. The study is currently in the second phase and has identified two possible alternatives to the open water intake, though if these designs were adopted, they would add construction costs to the project and remove a major incentive to have the plant in Huntington Beach.
“We oppose the project as designed,” says Ray Hiemstra, OC Coastkeeper's associate director of programs. “We think they can and should use a subsurface intake and a spray brine diffuser. If that happened, it would remove most of our opposition. There's still a concern about whether or not the water is needed, but if they're going to build it, they should build it right.”
Apart from environmental concerns, there's another issue that has stuck with the plant since the beginning: the cost of the water.
Water produced by the plant would be almost twice the price of water imported through the state water project, and the cost has only been climbing. In 2003, Poseidon estimated that its water would cost approximately $800 per acre-foot compared to $250 per acre-foot for other sources. That price has climbed to an estimated price of $1,850 per acre-foot in 2014, after accounting for a $250 per acre-foot financial incentive from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), with the possibility of a 25-year incentive of up to $340 per acre-foot from the MWD, according to a January 2014 report by OCWD. Current treated water imported by the MWD costs $840 per acre-foot, for comparison.
That's before any additional monies associated with rising energy prices and unforeseen construction costs. (Part of the reason desalinated water is so expensive is the high energy rate of producing it, which account for between one-third and one-half of the cost.)
Then there's the fact that not many people need the water, especially where Poseidon wants to make it. North and Central Orange County is situated over an aquifer and only imports approximately 30 percent of the water it uses. Negotiations between the MWDOC, which sells imported water from MWD to its 28 retail agency members, and Poseidon fell apart more than a year ago partially because of concerns over possible price increases and a lack of need. The water would make much more sense in South Orange County, where water districts import nearly 90 percent of the water they use and a smaller-scale facility is being studied.
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The part of Huntington Beach where the plant is proposed is an area of the city that could be pristine, if it weren't for the already-high amounts of industrialization. In addition to the site of the proposed desalination plant, the neighborhood is also home to the aging AES power plant, the Ascon Nesi chemical dump (a federal Superfund site that absorbed much of the city's oil-production waste from the 1930s to the '80s), and a disused Plains All American oil-storage-tank farm.
All three of these locations have possible major construction projects in the immediate future. AES wants to demolish the existing generating station to put up a new, more efficient power plant, as well as some surfboard themed decoration to make the site look less depressing.
Cleanup of the toxic chemicals at the Ascon site may finally begin in 2017. Plains All American wants to demolish its unused oil-storage tanks and turn the area into an empty lot. While these projects are all at different stages of planning, there's a fair chance they will overlap. And all of this is just across the street from several neighborhoods, Edison Park and Edison High School.
“You have the clean-up of Ascon coming, you have the reconfiguration of AES coming up, [and] now you have the desalination plant,” says Merle Mosishiri, president of Residents for Responsible Desalination (R4RD), a citizens advocacy group that has been pushing back on the Poseidon project for years. “They're all within a mile, a mile and a half of one another. Is there a chance all of these are going to be ready at the same time to start moving dirt around Southeast Huntington Beach?”
R4RD argues that a cumulative impact report, which would chronicle exactly what would happen and how the projects would affect one another, should at least be completed. The overlap could be very real and very troublesome. Individual environmental-impact reports for the projects have thus far found little impact on the community from the stand-alone projects, but all acknowledge that if the projects were to happen at the same time, traffic around the area would be a nightmare. Trucks would make hundreds of trips transporting hydrocarbon-contaminated dirt from demolished storage tanks, demolition scrap, and toxic waste from the Ascon site for months. Streets would also have to be torn up to install the necessary miles of pipeline and pumping stations that would be needed to transport the water through Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa to stations where it could enter the county water supply.
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It's rare to be able to see the results of a project before it even breaks ground, but with Poseidon's proposed Huntington Beach plant, you need do no more than drive an hour south along Interstate 5 to Carlsbad, getting off at the same exit that brings you to Legoland. Here, Poseidon has already broken ground on another desalination plant, nearly a twin of the one it's proposing in Huntington Beach.
This one also sits just across the street from the ocean, framed by palm trees, surfers and families. Above them towers three yellow construction cranes, laboring in tandem with hundreds of construction workers as they put together the complicated system that'll remove the salt from the seawater. Tall security fencing and barbed wire ring the entire site, with multiple security guards stationed around the entrances. The only part of the project that's accessible to the public is the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, a body of salt water that owes its existence to the aging Encina Power Station, which uses the water for cooling.
But since the plant opened in the '50s, the lagoon's usage has transitioned from purely industrial to a mix of industrial and recreational. People regularly fish there. There are wetlands with paths for walking, and it's home to an award-winning educational program for third-graders. It's also been designated a protected habitat for some of California's vulnerable fish populations.
It's here, attached to the power plant's aging intake system, that Poseidon is planning to absorb the water necessary for its operations, and much like in Huntington Beach, the plan is keeping alive old hardware that had been scheduled to go offline by the end of 2017.
There are some key differences, however. The CCC allowed Poseidon to use the open-water intake in Carlsbad, but only after the company agreed to fund the creation of 66 acres of new coastal wetlands to offset the environmental damage caused by its operations. That cost the company $23 million in start-up and $250,000 in annual maintenance, costs that are made up through the money Poseidon makes selling water to the county.
San Diego County is also notoriously dry, importing upward of 90 percent of the water it uses. The Carlsbad plant would produce 50 million gallons per day, just like the Huntington Beach plant, but the water would cost between $2,014 and $2,257 per acre-foot, with a guaranteed return of between 9 percent and 13 percent built into the rate, depending on operation costs. Construction is expected to finish sometime in early 2016, with the first batches of desalinated water delivered soon after that.
Poseidon's opponents are trying to stall the Huntington Beach project long enough to see how the Carlsbad plant pans out, confident it'll prove that Poseidon desalination is a bad idea. “I think they're in desperation mode now,” says former Huntington Beach Mayor and California Desalination Task Force Member Debbie Cook. “They need to get this done, and they need to get this done before San Diego comes online.”
“We basically have the opportunity to beta test the project before we build it,” adds Dave Hamilton, vice president of R4RD. “Why wouldn't you want to see how it turns out?”
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Despite all of the reasons for the project to be shelved, it's still only one permit away from construction, thanks in part to the money spent by Poseidon to make itself look better.
The company has commissioned multiple public-opinion polls about desalinated water that ask leading questions to uninformed voters. In the company's most recent poll, released in September 2014, 69 percent of those polled said they would support “a new, local source of high-quality drinking water” that “poses no risk for taxpayers.” Only 43 percent of those polled had even heard of the project. The results of that poll were reported by both the Orange County Register and Southern California Public Radio.
That's not all. At the beginning of 2013, Orange County's state legislative delegation sent a letter to the CCC signed by Robert Huff, Lou Correa, Mimi Walters, Mark Wyland, Curt Hagman, Allan Mansoor, Sharon Quirk-Silva, Don Wagner, Tom Daly, Travis Allen and Diane Harkey in bipartisan support of the project. The majority of the politicians who signed the letter had received donations from Poseidon. Of the 11 politicians, only Hagman and Quirk-Silva had not received campaign contributions. The others had received donations ranging from $500 to $4,000 since 2005.
Then there are the thousands of dollars Poseidon has spent on local races to get pro-desalination candidates onto water boards and city councils or to curry favor with existing politicos. In 2012, the company contributed $750 to Mesa Water District Director James Fisler, $1,000 to MWDOC Director Jeff Thomas, $250 to OCWD Director Denis Bilodeau, $249 to Costa Mesa City Councilman Gary Monahan, $250 to Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Barbara Delgleize, $500 to Anaheim City Councilman Jordan Brandman, and $50,000 to various political-action committees.
In 2014, the company's donations ballooned, totaling more than $9,000 to 15 different Orange County politicians and water board members including MWDOC Director Larry Dick, MWDOC Director Brett Barbre, Mesa Water Director Jim Atkinson, and Huntington Beach City Councilmen Mike Posey and Bill O'Connell. Then there's the $1.1 million Poseidon has spent since 2001 on its own Sacramento lobbyists, who've been targeting both the Legislature and the SWRCB in an effort to influence amendments to the state ocean plan.
The current staff-recommended amendment would prioritize subsurface intakes over surface intakes, but it would allow desalination plants to use surface intakes if subsurface systems were unfeasible or too expensive.
Despite what Poseidon claims about the need for desalination, there are alternatives available, and according to MWDOC's own estimates, Orange County has enough water to sustain itself through 2035 without adding additional water sources, and there are cheaper sources of water that can be tapped into before approaching desalination.
As always, there is increased conservation outreach. While Orange County has reduced its water usage admirably over the past few years, parts of Orange County are still using an inordinate amount of water. The biggest offenders are the people who live in the Serrano Water District, the water authority that serves Villa Park; they use more than six times the amount of water per person than the city of Santa Ana. If everyone in Orange County used water at a rate equal to Santa Ana, the county would save nearly 100,000 acre-feet of water per year, eclipsing the water that would be produced by a desalination plant.
Then there's the crown jewel of the Orange County water system, the Groundwater Recharge System. The system takes waste water from the Orange County Sanitation District and purifies it to levels cleaner than standard tap water. It uses very similar technology to the desalination plant, but it provides water at about one-third the cost. The recharge system currently supplies Orange County with 70,000 acre-feet of water per year, already more water than the desalination plant. By the end of the year, it will be expanded to provide 100,000 acre-feet and can be expanded further still to about 130,000 acre-feet in 2035, according to OCWD projections.
Finally, there's the possible capture of more storm-water runoff. Currently, half of the storm water in Southern California is lost to the ocean. A working group of Southern California counties estimates that nearly 400,000 acre-feet per year could be added to the water supply through a storm-water capture project, though additional study is required.
Is the Poseidon plant really necessary? Do we really want to be stuck with a project we might not need, that we would still have to pay for even if we didn't use it? And does it really need to be in Huntington Beach, a city that honestly should've let go of its industrial past when Chevron moved out in the 1990s?
“The interesting thing is there are only a few places where there are water intakes, and that doesn't really even matter anymore because now they're illegal [for power plants],” Mosishiri says.
“That's what they originally tried to do,” Hamilton adds. “They wanted to piggyback on AES because AES had water coming in for cooling, but the reason for this plant to be located next to this electrical company has disappeared.”
It's about time the entire project disappeared, too.