A salty fight in Huntington Beach over making ocean water drinkable

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In Huntington Beach, a debate is brewing over the construction of a desalination plant, which would convert salty seawater to drinkable water. The process is extensive and expensive. The construction is controversial because of the cost and because of what all that salt and excess could do to the coastal ecosystem.

KCRW speaks to Gustavo Arellano, features writer for the LA Times Metro desk. 

KCRW: A final decision on the project is expected by this Friday, correct? 

Gustavo Arellano: “What's expected from the Santa Ana Regional Water District, which is a district in which this proposed desalination plant would be, is a permit to allow Poseidon to basically discharge water into the ocean. And this is something that's been going on … for at least 20 years.”

Is this desalination plant still in the proposed stages?

“Not a single thing has been built. All you've had for two decades basically is proposals, meetings, protests, amazingly no lawsuits. … Even this vote has been delayed. This was supposed to happen in March, but because of coronavirus, of course, it got postponed until finally at the very beginning of August.”

Environmentalists are against the plant, saying toxic brine from the process would be expelled into the ocean and have a big effect on coastal life. Do you think there's any leeway?

“Oh no, this has been from the start. They're saying that first of all, the way you do desalination, obviously, you suck in water from the ocean. In this case in Huntington Beach, it would be built next to a power plant, not too far away from the mouth of the Santa Ana River. And this power plant has already built-in infrastructure that pulls in water from a quarter mile away from this humongous pipe that you could drive a tractor through actually. 

… You're pulling in brine, you're pulling in plankton, you're pulling in fish larva, you're pulling in even fish. And so what these environmentalists are saying [is] that this would destroy the ecosystem off the coast of Huntington Beach. Now Poseidon has been saying, ‘Well, we're going to do everything possible to mitigate that.’ But it's not good enough for the environmentalists.”

From a financial and economic standpoint, are there incentives like tax breaks to approve the plan? What are the long-term benefits for the region? 

“This is where you get into murky waters, pardon the pun, when it comes to politics. Because people who are usually liberal, very strong democrats are actually in favor of Poseidon specifically for the economic impact. 

You think of all these union jobs. Poseidon would be a union plant, at least the construction. So union leaders have been advocating for this for years. 

You even have a group like L.U.L.A.C., the League of United Latin American Citizens, which is almost always left-Democrat, they've been writing op-eds for years saying, ‘Hey, this would lead to a lot of jobs for Latinos. This would lead to a lot of water for Latinos.’ That's kind of a weird argument. 

... You also have conservatives, good government people who are against any government waste. They're also the ones saying, ‘No, this will just cost too much.’ So you have the politics of the Poseidon plant all over the place.”

What do we know about Poseidon, the company that wants to build this plant?

“They've built desalination plants all over the world. Most closely down in San Diego County in Carlsbad, I believe they built one about a decade ago. And the same issues that you're seeing now, the pros and the cons, that decade-long process to even get it accomplished, also happened in Carlsbad. But at least down in Carlsbad, they were able to put it and San Diego's getting that desalinated water.”

Did Carlsbad address environmental concerns? 

“Since this is California, you could basically trade any damage you do environmentally like a baseball card. So down in Carlsbad, they built solar panels, they rehabilitated wetlands, and that's a proposal in Huntington Beach. 

The proposed Poseidon plant is actually right next to some of the largest remaining wetlands in California. And so what Poseidon is saying is we’ll rehabilitate them at no cost to taxpayers, about 100 acres worth. So that has actually gotten some environmentalists, locally in Huntington Beach, on the site of Poseidon.”

What do you think will happen Friday? Another threshold has to be crossed.  

“I predict that it's a long one. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, they're going to approve that permit for the intake and also the release of that water. 

But then comes the big challenge: the California Coastal Commission. And the California Coastal Commission, they're pretty stringent when it comes to the coast and protecting the coast. But that's going to take another couple of months, maybe another year with coronavirus. Who on earth knows. 

But this is an important step, because this is something that Poseidon has been trying to get for years and years and years. This was really the last obstacle before the big one of the Coastal Commission. So after that, I think ... you'll see the lawsuits start coming in.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Jenna Kagel