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The future of Orange County's water is at stake

Poseidon Water has proposed a desalination plant in Huntington Beach and wants to use existing open-water intake for collecting and discharging water. The California Coastal Commission staff is recommending approval of the project but with conditions that include using subsurface intakes. (Photo: Artist rendering of Poseidon Water desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, Calif.)
Courtesy of Poseidon Water
Poseidon Water's proposed desalination project would be located adjacent to the existing AES power plant. Poseidon proposes to modify the power plant's existing pipes, which run about a mile offshore, to take in seawater through a fine screen and send leftover brine back to the ocean through a diffuser. (Photo: Artist rendering of Poseidon Water desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach.)

A controversial project to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach goes before the State Lands Commission Thursday for what project backers hope will be one of its final regulatory hurdles. It comes more than 15 years after the project was first proposed. 

The three-member commission, which manages California’s tidal and submerged lands, will decide whether to grant the Boston-based Poseidon Water a lease to use the intake and outfall pipes from an existing power plant to pull seawater into the proposed plant and return concentrated brine to the ocean after the water is desalinated. It will also decide whether to certify an environmental impact report for Poseidon’s intake and discharge plans. 

New state regulations require that desalination plants minimize negative impacts on sea life, which the company plans to do primarily by installing a screen over the intake pipe and sending the leftover brine back to the ocean through a diffuser. 

Observers see the project as a test case for the future of large-scale desalination plants in California. 

“If you don’t do this now, you may never have the opportunity again,” said John Kennedy, executive director of engineering and water resources at the Orange County Water District. OCWD manages Orange County’s vast groundwater basin and has a preliminary, non-binding agreement with Poseidon to purchase nearly all of the 56,000 acre-feet of drinking water the plant would produce a year. 

Opponents of the project, which include environmental and neighborhood groups, and at least one Orange County water district, say the State Lands Commission should expand its environmental review to include a host of other concerns, including the need for the project and what will be done with the water once it's made potable. 

The City of Huntington Beach certified a comprehensive environmental impact report for the desalination project in 2010. But critics say a new review is warranted because there have been significant changes to the project since then. 

"One is that we don’t know what’s going to happen to the water once they’re going to produce it,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University. Sivas is representing several environmental groups that oppose the project.  

OCWD has explored a range of options for distributing the desalinated water, including pumping it into the groundwater basin, but it hasn’t yet settled on a plan.  

Supporters and opponents of the project plan to pack the chambers of Huntington Beach City Council for the hearing. If the State Lands Commission gives the project a green light, Poseidon must next seek approval from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, followed by the California Coastal Commission. 

A final agreement between Poseidon and OCWD to purchase the desalinated water would come last. Kennedy estimated that if the project gets all of its permits, OC residents could be pouring desalinated water from their taps by 2022.