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Vote scheduled Wednesday for controversial Huntington Beach desalination plant

The California Coastal Commission is expected to vote on a controversial proposal Wednesday. It would green-light construction of a plant in Huntington Beach that would desalinate ocean water and turn it into drinking water. The company hoping to get approval is counting on the commission's previous approval of a similar project in Carlsbad.

For several environmental groups, it's deja vu as they fight another proposal to build a desalination plant along the Southern California coast. 

In 2009 Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources won approval from the coastal commission to build a desalination plant next to an existing power plant in Carlsbad. Construction is now under way with the first delivery of desalted water expected in 2016.

Now, parent company Poseidon Water, wants to build a similar facility next to a power plant in Huntington Beach. But opponents of desalination are hoping for a different outcome this time. 

"We learned a lot of stuff here in San Diego with the Carlsbad desalination plant," said attorney Marco Gonzalez with Encinitas-based Coast Law Group. The law firm filed several legal challenges against the Carlsbad project on behalf of environmental groups.

"They will say just about anything to get their permits at the various stages before regulatory bodies," Gonzalez said.

His law firm is now involved in stopping the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant. 

Condition approval?

The next step in that fight is Wednesday's California Coastal Commission hearing in Newport Beach. The commission will consider Poseidon's application for a coastal development permit. A commission staff reportrecommends approval of the project but with conditions.

Projects like this take time: the company's first of many required permits for the Huntington Beach project was granted in 2006. 

Poseidon Water vice president Scott Maloni said the plant would produce 50 million gallons of fresh water a day and provide a drought-free supply into the future.  

"In Orange County, half of their water must be imported," Maloni said. "Northern Orange County has groundwater, and they can get up to 75 percent of their supply from the ground. Southern Orange County has no groundwater. They're like San Diego geophysically; they have to import almost all of their water."

He said the company's coastal permit application addresses environmental concerns about harm to marine life and coastal hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and sea level rise. 

If all goes as planned, Maloni says the plant could be producing desalted water by 2018. 

Poseidon plans to use existing open ocean water intakes and discharge pipes at the Huntington Beach Generation Station. 

Opponents say open-ocean intakes kill marine life and that the discharge harms the marine ecosystem. California has mandated that system - called "'once through cooling" -  be phased out in power plants by 2020. 

"The state has said, 'sorry electric power plants, you can't do this anymore.' " So why is it that Poseidon gets to do it when there are alternatives," said Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, who opposes the project. "Water could be drawn in through the sand for example and that would be much less damaging."  

Boardman is describing a subsurface intake - something the Coastal Commission staff has recommended as one condition for granting approval for the plant.
That condition wasn't part of the staff recommendation for the Carlsbad plant because the coastal geology there can't accommodate subsurface intakes. 
Poseidon's Maloni says the same is true in Huntington Beach. He wants the commission to ignore the recommendation for subsurface intakes because the additional costs would effectively kill the project.  
"The geological conditions offshore at Huntington Beach do not provide for a subsurface intake system," Maloni said. "It's been extensively studied. It's really a non-starter. And by recommending approval of a permit with a technology that they know is unfeasible and could not be financed, it's really a cynical ploy on the part of the coastal commission staff." 

Maloni said the company would use the existing intake and discharge pipes until the Huntington Beach Generating Station phases the pipes out by 2020. Poseidon would then move to use them independently. But that would require a review from the State Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Cost of Desalted Water

Ray Hiemstra is with Orange County Coastkeeper.  He said the intake issue aside, his group has another reason it wants the project stopped: cost. The process of desalinating water uses considerable energy.  

"Why would we ask our ratepayers to pay more? Why would we use enough energy for 30,000 homes, the associated greenhouse gases," Hiemstra said. "All of these impacts are in the context of we don't need this water." 

Hiemstra says Orange County has enough imported and local water supplies to meet demand through 2035. Imported supplies now cost about $800 per acre-foot. Supplies from the proposed plant would cost an estimated $2000 per acre-foot.  

For the Carlsbad desalination plant, "the total cost for desalinated water, including the pipeline, is projected at $2,014 to $2,257 per acre-foot in 2012 dollars," according to a recent news release from the San Diego County Water Authority. "While that is more costly than current water supplies, desalination is a more reliable, drought-proof supply. Water Authority projections also show seawater desalination it may be cost-competitive with imported water sources by the mid 2020s." 

The San Diego County Water Authority is a water wholesaler and has signed a water purchase agreement with Poseidon.

The Politics of Desalination

Poseidon Water has letters of support for the project from past Huntington Beach mayors and many other elected officials in Orange County, company vice president Maloni said.   

But the current mayor and a majority of the city council are against the project. 

Ray Hiemstra with Orange County Coastkeeper said the fight over the Carlsbad plant is instructive as the group battles the politics of desalination. 

"We need to show that the community cares and that when some legislator gets up there and says 'I represent some 40,000 people' that they really don't," Hiemstra said. "They may represent some people in the legislature, but the community has different thoughts on that.  It was a political decision [approving the permit for Carlsbad desalination plant] that the commission made. We've got to do our best to make sure that doesn't happen again."    

But another lesson from the battle over desalination in San Diego County is not to count out Poseidon or its backers.

After more than 10 years of regulatory andlegal challenges, the company ultimately prevailed in getting Carlsbad plant approved.