Battle over Huntington Beach desalination project resurfaces

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The long-running battle over a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach resurfaced this week during a meeting where opponents expressed concerns about a proposed amendment to the project. 

California regulators say the firm behind the project, Poseidon Water, must amend its state-issued lease in order to comply with new regulations on desalination plants. The regulations, known as the Desalination Amendment, require measures to reduce the impact of the desalination process on sea life and plankton, which can get sucked into the pipes used to draw ocean water into the plant. 

Desalination plants must also now minimize the potentially harmful impact of the concentrated brine that is discharged back into the ocean after it's removed from the water.

Poseidon wants to build the plant on the site of the existing Huntington Beach power generating station, just north of the Huntington Beach wetlands. Once operational, it would produce about 50 million gallons of drinking water per day.

To comply with the new rules, Poseidon wants to suck water into the plant through wire screens with 1-milimeter-wide openings and slow down the water intake rate to no more than 0.5 feet per second. 

The company is also proposing to add a seawater diffuser to the outflow pipe, which would spread the concentrated brine over a larger area. 

At a public hearing Wednesday at the Huntington Beach Central Library, numerous opponents of the project said regulators should review the desalination plant in its entirety, not just the proposed amendments.

Mandy Sackett, California policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, said numerous external changes since the project was first approved by the City of Huntington Beach in 2010 warrant putting it through a new environmental review. 

“This project needs to be reevaluated,” Sackett said, adding that the desalination plant’s original objectives of increasing the water supply for Orange County have already largely been met through conservation measures and the county’s widely admired wastewater recycling system. 

Conner Everts, who represents the Desal Response Group, which opposes desalination, echoed the sentiment. “We’re looking at a very different landscape than when this project first came in,” he said.

Several speakers also referenced studies showing that sea level rise could flood the proposed project site. A 2014 report prepared for the City of Huntington Beach on the likely impact of rising seas shows potential tidal flooding of the area by 2100. 

Other speakers called for Poseidon to use a subsurface intake system, meaning seawater would be drawn through the ocean floor rather than through pipes at the surface. California’s new desalination regulations call for using subsurface intake where feasible. But an independent advisory panel convened in 2013 to study that option for the proposed Huntington Beach plant found that the available subsurface intake technology was infeasible, either technically and economically, for the plant.

Around 40 people attending Wednesday's public meeting on the desalination project, and dozens spoke out against it. No one spoke in favor of the project or the proposed fixes to the intake and outflow pipes. 

Scott Maloni, project manager for Poseidon's Huntington Beach project, who was not at the public meeting, said the proposed modifications to intake and outflow would be a win for sea life. 

“From an environmental perspective our project is immensely improved,” Maloni said in a phone interview. "Not only are we complying with the Desalination Amendment, we think we're doing something novel and cutting edge for California.”

Maloni also addressed opponents’ assertions that desalinated water is no longer needed to supplement Orange County’s water supply.

“There's no doubt that the project is needed,” he said. “But if it's not needed, it won't get built. The agreement agreement with Orange County Water District is the last thing that happens. They won't buy until the plant is fully permitted.”  

The Orange County Water District and Poseidon approved a term sheet to begin negotiating the purchase of all of the water produced by Poseidon if the Huntington Beach plant becomes operational, but actual negotiations have not begun. 

John Kennedy, executive director of engineering and water resources at the OC Water District, confirmed that the board is waiting to see how the rest of the permitting process goes for Poseidon.

"We’re watching this very closely and would like to see that Poseidon can get most of its permits before we spend a lot of money on the project." Kennedy said the district is exploring how to distribute the water and is focusing on the idea of pumping it underground to recharge the groundwater basin.

Wednesday's public meeting about the desalination project was convened by the California State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over the coastal land and waters underneath the intake and outflow pipes. Poseidon got a lease in 2011 from the commission to use the pipes, which already exist and are currently used by the power generating station to cool water after it’s boiled to generate electricity. 

Earlier this year, Poseidon applied for a modification of that lease because of changes to the intake and outflow pipes required by the new desalination regulations. 

The State Lands Commission must now determine the scope of its environmental review of the modified project. It will accept public comments until Dec. 21 and plans to release a draft environmental review in the first half of next year. 

If the commission approves the project, Poseidon must then renew its permit with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. Finally, the project must be reviewed and approved by the California Coastal Commission. 

Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad, just 60 miles down the coast, just concluded its first year of operation, producing 15 billion gallons of drinking water for San Diego County. 

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