The staff of the California Coastal Commission has recommended the approval of a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach but with several conditions. One would require desalination company Poseidon Water to use subsurface intakes -- intakes on the sea floor -- to bring water into the plant and to discharge waste back into the ocean.
Poseidon contends the requirement would kill the project.
The company instead wants to use existing open-ocean intakes at a power plant next to the site of the proposed desalination facility. But those intakes are scheduled to be phased out at the power plant by 2020 in accordance with California law.
"The staff report is essentially a recommendation of denial," said Scott Maloni, vice president of Poseidon Water.
"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."
He said the staff recommendations "ignore about a decade of environmental study and analysis by independent permitting agencies."
The lengthy staff report includes a summary in which the condition requiring a subsurface intake is spelled out:
"A key issue here is Poseidon’s proposed use of an open-water intake that will result in significant adverse effects to marine life. Poseidon’s use of the intake will entrain more than 80 million fish larvae, eggs, and invertebrates each year that originate in areas along about 100 miles of shoreline, including areas within Marine Life Protected Areas.
"The intake is currently used by the adjacent Huntington Beach power plant to draw in cooling water for its generating units. The power plant plans to end its use of the intake no later than 2020 in conformity with a policy adopted in 2010 by the State Water Resources Control Board to phase out use of these intakes by most of the state’s coastal power plants due to their significant adverse effects on marine life. Desalination facilities using these intakes would cause the same type of adverse effects, and the State Board is preparing a follow-up policy that would limit the use of this type of intake for desalination.
"Poseidon proposes to continue using the intake for an additional 30 years. However, commission staff has determined there are feasible alternative intake methods that would entirely avoid or significantly reduce the expected adverse effects of Poseidon’s proposal. Staff is therefore recommending the Commission require Poseidon to use a subsurface intake to obtain the seawater needed for desalination."
Huntington Beach mayor Connie Boardman, an opponent of the proposed plant, welcomed the staff's findings.
"The elimination of the use of the existing intake pipes is an important condition," Boardman said. "And I'm glad the Coastal Commission staff has recognized how environmentally damaging those intakes are."
But Poseidon's Maloni said subsurface intakes won't draw enough water for the plant.
And he said an intake on the ocean floor, while reducing harm to marine life, would impact the nearby coastal environment at Huntington Beach.
"You would have potential subsidence along Pacific Coast Highway and you would have drawdown of the local wetlands," he said. "Those are all significant environmental impacts that would render a subsurface intake inferior to the use of the existing intake."
The staff report also recommends other conditions that Maloni said are not necessary.
"There's no need to modify the application, the current hazard assessment at the site and the proposed permit conditions that we have offered fully address tsunami, sea level rise and seismic hazards at the site."
"It's the wrong place to do this"
Orange County Coastkeeper is among several environmental groups that claim the desalination plant isn't needed.
"The bottom line is this is still a bad idea, it's still the wrong place to do this," said Ray Hiemstra with Orange County Coastkeeper.
He said his group opposes the project with or without subsurface intakes.
"The increase in energy consumption that the plant's going to require and the fact, of course, that we just don't need the water at all, so all of the impacts - greenhouse gases, privatization of water - are still there and they're totally unnecessary," Hiemstra said.
He cites reports showing Orange County's supply of imported water and local sources is sufficient to meet expected demand to 2035.
Poseidon Water said the proposed desalination plant would produce 50 million gallons of water a day and would provide a reliable, drought-proof supply.
Maloni said Poseidon has support for the project from many elected leaders in Orange County.
(An appendix at the end of the Coastal Commission staff report includes dozens of support and opposition letters for the project.)
But the final decision will be made by coastal commissioners. The panel will consider the coastal development permit application for the desalination plant at its Nov. 13 meeting in Newport Beach.