09 • 04 • 2020

Surfrider Continues to Oppose Poseidon Desalination Plant in Huntington Beach

By Staley Prom

The Surfrider Foundation and many allies are continuing to oppose a permit for one of the largest proposed desalination projects in the country. The Poseidon desalination project, proposed for Huntington Beach, California, would draw in more than 100 million gallons per day (MGD) of ocean water, create more than 50 MGD of drinkable water, and discharge millions of gallons of concentrated brine each day off the Huntington Beach coast, a popular spot for surfing, fishing, and beach recreation in southern California’s “Surf City”.

The project requires several permits from various agencies, including the Santa Ana Regional Water Board’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit required under the Clean Water Act. The Board was expected to make its decision on whether to grant or deny the permit at an August 7th meeting, after taking two full days of public comments on July 30th and 31st. However, after a full day of deliberation, the Board was still not at a position to make the decision. It initially postponed deliberations to a special meeting September 17th, but on September 2nd, the Board again postponed the hearing to a later date (to be determined) in order for staff to revise the proposed permit in light of several inadequacies.

A crucial component of the Board’s decision is the requirement to make a  determination, under the California Water Code (Section 13142.5(b)) and the California Ocean Plan, that the project includes the best site, design, technology, and mitigation measures feasible to minimize the intake and mortality of marine life.

The Surfrider Foundation believes the Board cannot make this determination with the current proposal, which flies in the face of the California State Water Quality Control Board’s Ocean Plan “Desalination Amendment” adopted in 2015. The Desalination Amendment was adopted in order to guide the Regional Boards’ Water Code Section 13142.5(b) analysis with respect to desalination projects’ seawater intakes and discharges. 

The Amendment provides a strong preference for “subsurface intakes” (located under the seafloor) which minimize harm to marine life, as opposed to “open ocean intakes,” by preventing the entrainment and impingement of marine life. Additionally the Desalination Amendment explicitly provides that if a regional board determines that subsurface intakes aren’t feasible, it must consider a reasonable range of alternative plant sizes to determine whether subsurface intakes could be used for those design capacities. The Amendment also requires that there be an identified need for the project. 

Despite the passage of the Desalination Amendment since the project was originally proposed over two decades ago, the Board is continuing to consider a project at the same oversized 50 MGD capacity, using “open ocean” intakes – and the Board has not yet considered smaller plant sizes.

As Surfrider and others testified at a July 30 public hearing (check out the environmental coalition’s comments here (beginning at 4:57:30) and a May 15th workshop before the Regional Board, there isn’t a need for 50 MGD of desal water from the project. Representatives from both Orange County Water District (OCWD) and Municipal Water District of Orange County both have indicated that the gap in supply and demand for the O.C. Basin is significantly smaller than 50 MGD, and OCWD, which would be purchasing the Poseidon product water, has told the Board it anticipates putting much of it back into the ground, as it hasn’t located cities to buy all of the supplies. What this means on the ground for our ocean and coastal resources is unnecessary impacts on marine life, in violation of the California Water Code and Ocean Plan. With desalination providing one of the most expensive sources of water, it also likely means higher groundwater costs, and ultimately, larger water bills for residential consumers. 

Regional Board staff is incorrectly interpreting the question of whether the water is needed. Under its interpretation, if a project is listed in an Urban Water Management Plan, staff concludes it’s needed. Here, the Urban Water Management Plan lists multiple alternative methods for ensuring a reliable future water supply, but clearly they aren’t all needed. Additionally, the California Water Code, Section 10631(g), requires that an Urban Water Management Plan describe the “opportunities for development of desalinated water.” The fact that the law requires any “opportunity” to be considered in an Urban Water Management plan means that, under staff’s interpretation, any - and the full capacity of any - potential desal “opportunity” would be needed. That certainly cannot be correct, and is completely at odds with the Desalination Amendment’s overarching goal of minimizing impacts and harm to marine life.    

Several Board members have expressed concerns about need and other issues. Among concerns cited, Board member William von Blasingame has noted that it seems like OCWD hasn’t “found a home” for the water, which indicates it isn’t needed. Board member Daniel Selmi has expressed similar concerns, noting that what OCWD intends to do with the water is “entirely speculative.”

Board member von Blasingame also voiced concerns that, in considering the project’s impacts, Poseidon and Regional Board staff are relying on marine life impact studies that are 17 years old. He also expressed disbelief that despite seeking permits for over 15 years and knowing about the Ocean Plan’s requirement for a Marine Life Mitigation Plan since the Desalination Amendment was adopted in 2015, Poseidon still doesn’t have a final approved Marine Life Mitigation Plan. Several Board members recognize that the marine life mitigation project for the plant, much of which entails preservation of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, fails to comply with the Ocean Plan which requires that mitigation involve the “expansion, restoration, or creation” of marine life habitat, but not “preservation.” One of the primary reasons for the Board’s continued deliberations is the issue of adequate mitigation, and staff is anticipated to include additional requirements in the revised tentative permit.

Board members including Chair William Ruh have also expressed concerns over the anticipated higher costs and water bills passed on to consumers. The 50 MGD project raises significant environmental justice concerns, as there is no justification for higher water bills when the desalinated product water isn’t needed and less expensive alternatives are available.    

Surfrider continues to strongly oppose the Regional Board’s permit for this oversized, harmful project with open ocean intakes, in violation of the Water Code and Ocean Plan, and will continue to express our opposition before the Board.   

The project additionally requires a Coastal Development Permit from the California Coastal Commission, which will consider the project after the Regional Board’s decision.