Stab Magazine | Should You Be Worried About HB’s Proposed Desalination Plant?

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Should You Be Worried About HB’s Proposed Desalination Plant?

We investigated

news // Aug 3, 2017
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The other day I received an email from the Surfrider Foundation.

Normally, this sort of thing would be immediately spammed, as I don’t appreciate people telling me when, where, or how to be a good person. It happens organically or not at all. Typically the latter.

However, it seems Surfrider has hired a brilliant new Marketing Manager, as the email’s subject read: “URGENT: Help stop this billion-dollar water boondoggle!”

And who among us can say no to a billion dollar boondoggle ? What even is a boondoggle? I clicked immediately.

Dear Friend,

Poseidon Resources has spent millions lobbying for an unnecessary desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and a 50-year contract that would force ratepayers to buy their overpriced water, despite the availability of more affordable and environmentally-friendly sources like recycled water and rainwater capture. Poseidon has used every trick in the book to win approval for this billion-dollar boondoggle, and now state leaders are considering whether to permit its construction.

The proposed plant will drive up water rates at a time when many consumers are struggling to make ends meet. It will also suck in massive amounts of sea life, pollute coastal waters with toxic brine, while its high energy consumption will undermine the state’s climate and clean energy goals. Opposition to the proposed Huntington Beach desalination facility is more than just opposition to a poorly planned and unnecessary boondoggle – it is a vote for a better future for Californians.

Thank you for standing up for smart, sustainable water solutions.

This certainly caught my attention, mostly because I knew nothing of the machinations behind, nor problems presented by water desalination. I contacted Mandy Sackett, a Surfrider representative who has dealt extensively with desalination projects across the California coast, about why the Foundation is so opposed to a plant in Huntington Beach. (Surfrider has already blocked one desalination plant, which was proposed to be built in Santa Cruz, from happening. However, they were unsuccessful in stopping Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant from being built.)

The Carlsbad plant. Good, bad, or somewhere in between?

Stab: Hey Mandy, I’m curious why the Surfrider Foundation is opposed to water desalination plants. Could you give me a little background?
Mandy Sackett: We’re not expressly opposed to water desalination. We have a specific problem with Poseidon, whose Carlsbad plant has chronic toxicity issues with its water, and who is subverting the new water desalination legislation in order to build another plant in Huntington Beach. We fear this will create environmental and economic issues for the people of Orange County, along with setting a bad precedent for future desalination projects across the state. 

And what are these economic and environmental issues?
Desalination plants produce a toxic brine, which is basically ultra-concentrated sea salt. Poseidon will spray this brine back into the estuary through a diffuser, which is better than leaking it straight into the ocean, but it’s still not great. Next, we have a problem with the location (Poseidon plans to co-locate with AES Generating Station in H.B., which is the M.O. for desalination plants, as it allows them to utilize the powerplant’s pre-existing water cooling system). They haven’t analysed the adjacent estuary for sea-level rise impacts yet, so there’s potential that it could be exposed to flooding. This could lead to a host of potential problems that have yet to be considered. On top of that, as I previously mentioned, Poseidon has had chronic toxicity issues at its Carlsbad plant. 

From the economic side, desalination is the most expensive way to attain pure, drinkable water. If this plant was approved, and Poseidon made a deal with the Orange County Water District, costs would be roughly twice as high as imported water, and much more costly than waste water recycling.

What’s a better alternative to the water issue?
Well, first of all, it’s important to remember that California is no longer in a drought. Regardless, we would like to see practices such as conservation and waste water recycling completely exhausted before resorting to desalination. Orange County already has a groundwater replenishment system, which they’re planning to expand. This would be a great option. In our opinion, desalination should be a last resort, used only in times of severe water deficiency — which is not our current situation.

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California’s stormy winter was good for many things — noevlty waves included. Photo: Mike Farkas

I thanked Mandy for her informed analysis but knew, deep down, that my job wasn’t finished. Every story has at least two sides, so I thought it was only right to contact Poseidon and hear their point of view.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the gist of our it is this: Poseidon logically refuted the majority of criticisms wrought by Surfrider. There were a few cases of inconsistent data, such as with pricing and the Carlsbad toxicity issue, but for the most part, what the representative told me made sense. They shared different views from Surfrider, but not in a way that was inherently right or wrong. Kinda like politics.  

Poseidon’s main argument was that, for just a marginal increase in price (~$3 extra per ratepayer, per month), desalination enables the world’s most abundant water source – the ocean – to be levied into quality, drinkable water, regardless of climate phenomena or groundwater supply, all with relatively low environmental impact (Poseidon claims to be carbon-neutral and that their harm to marine life is statistically irrelevant). 

Now, my instincts tell me to trust the Surfrider Foundation, who has a long history of protecting our coastlines and no (known) financial stake in this situation. On the other hand, Poseidon, which stands to gain millions upon billions(?) from this “boondoggle”, also makes a strong case for the future of California’s water supply.

A wise man once told me to err on the side of protectionism, but in this case, who is our protector?

Is it the Surfrider Foundation, who wants to halt the construction of a potentially harmful desalination plant and save local ratepayers some cash? Or is it Poseidon, who, despite their capitalistic motives, would be doing Orange County residents a long-term favour by securing  an eternal supply of drinking water?

I need a surf. 


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