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Proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant passes key test on road to reality

A pipe sends drinking water from the Carlsbad desalination plant to taps in San Diego County, Oct. 16, 2017. Poseidon Water, which owns the plant, wants to build a similar one in Huntington Beach.
Jill Replogle
A pipe sends drinking water from the Carlsbad desalination plant to taps in San Diego County, Oct. 16, 2017. Poseidon Water, which owns the plant, wants to build a similar one in Huntington Beach.

The State Lands Commission voted Thursday to grant a lease for a large-scale desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

The plant, to be built by Boston-based Poseidon Water, would produce 50 million gallons a day of drinking water, enough for about 400,000 people. 

Poseidon's plant of the same size in Carlsbad is currently the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. 

The state lands lease, which runs through 2026, lets Poseidon use pipes from a coastal power plant to suck seawater into reverse osmosis pipes and spit back concentrated brine after the water is desalinated. 

The green light from the State Lands Commission is the first of three major regulatory hurdles Poseidon has to clear before the plant can get built. 

The lease hearing brought out hundreds of people for and against the project. Poseidon set up a tent outside Huntington Beach City Hall, where the hearing took place, to shade and feed supporters. The environmental group Coastkeeper fed project opponents.

Former Senator Barbara Boxer, who now consults for Poseidon, was there. Opponents booed loudly when the longtime environmental champion took the microphone to make an impassioned speech about preparing for a more volatile climate.

“It can get us ready,” she said. “Ready for the inevitable, for what is already here.” 

She and several other supporters cited the recent hurricane that left most of Puerto Rico without potable water to illustrate the benefits of having locally produced water from the sea.

Opponents spoke with equal passion about the negative effects the desal plant could have on marine life, surrounding neighborhoods and residential water bills. Many also said it would discourage water conservation and was unneeded. 

Costa Mesa resident Terry Koken put his feelings into verses, which he sang for commissioners. 

“She’ll suck the water from the sea and puree fish and flounder. Her briny effluents pollute the waters all around her,” one of the versus read. 

Poseidon plans to install a wedge wire screen over the intake pipe and slow down the speed of water entering the pipe to decrease the risks of entrapment to fish and plankton.

It will also install a diffuser to disperse the leftover brine into the ocean. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which must issue Poseidon a permit, is doing its own study to determine whether the proposed diffuser is sufficient to mitigate the potentially harmful environmental impacts of concentrated brine. 

The State Lands Commission is made up of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Controller Betty Yee and state Finance Director Michael Cohen. (Cohen’s alternate, Eraina Ortega, sat in for him at the Poseidon hearing.) It’s charged with managing publicly owned tidal and submerged land. 

The commission initially granted Poseidon a lease in 2010 but the lease had to be amended after California passed new environmental rules for desalination plants in 2015. 

The State Lands Commission voted unanimously to grant a lease to Poseidon, including an amendment proposed by Yee that requires the company to offset 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from construction and operation of the plant if it gets built. 

The Regional Water Quality Control Board has tentative plans to hold a hearing on Poseidon’s application for a pollutant discharge permit in May 2018. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the plant would produce 50,000 gallons of drinking water per day.