Orange County Votes to Deny Construction of Desalination Facility

Thu Jul 7th, On Environmental Law, by

The oceans of the world, which makeup over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, contain approximately 97 percent of the planet’s water. The remaining 3 percent, which humans, animals and vegetation rely upon for drinking and agriculture, can be found within the rivers and lakes that constitute freshwater. As global temperatures continue to give rise to drought and dehydration, the pressure to access suitable freshwater for land-based ecosystems also increases. In an attempt to transform this reserve of seawater into usable freshwater, California lawmakers first considered the development of a desalination facility in Huntington Beach in 1998. The $1.4 billion proposed facility, which would operate under the supervision of Poseidon Water company, could produce upwards of 50 million gallons of drinkable water daily, thus remediating the long-standing plague of drought within California.

The concept of producing serviceable water from seawater is brilliant in theory, however, upon closer inspection, the process of desalination may cause more harm than good. The most prominent voice of dissent on the matter, the California Coastal Commission, finally presented their decision in early May when they denied a permit granting Poseidon the ability to begin construction on the plant. For the commission, the potential impacts of taking in large amounts of ocean water and releasing salty discharge back into the ocean could bring about an oceanic imbalance that could threaten small marine organisms. The fiscal costs associated with desalination garner it one of the most expensive methods for obtaining drinkable water, however, with persisting drought and rising temperatures, it may soon be the best method. The debate over the construction of the desalination facility has been ongoing, garnering extensive input on both sides of the argument as the state attempts to facilitate a cost benefit analysis.

Witness reports from the Coastal Commission’s meeting to discuss the potentiality of the desalination facility indicate that the meeting was nothing short of intense. Dozens of supporters and critics of the proposal were in attendance when the Commission considered the fate of the plant after years of hearings and deliberation. Those in support of the proposal include California Governor, Gavin Newsome, who suggests that the plant’s construction would be revolutionary for the Huntington Beach area. Along with supplying over 400,000 Orange County residents with fresh water, the desalination facility would provide over 3,000 jobs through construction, along with the 282 jobs annually to operate. A statement from Poseidon Water holds a similar tone: “California continues to face a punishing drought, with no end in sight. Every day, we see new calls for conservation as reservoir levels drop to dangerous lows. We firmly believe that this desalination project would have created a sustainable, drought-tolerant source of water.” Ultimately, the opinions in affirmation of construction failed to trounce the voices of disapproval.

The most prominent rival argument made by environmental activists involved the concern of ecosystem imbalance due to the re-release of salt into the ocean; the fear of salinization levels killing off entire communities of microorganisms was enough to persuade the Coastal Commission. Board Member for the Commission, Dayna Bochco, released a statement indicating her concerns, “The ocean is under attack. I cannot say in good conscience that this amount of damage is OK.” Subsequent arguments urging the Commission to deny the bill also hold validity. Firstly, several critics argue that the plan was unnecessarily expensive, especially considering how the proposed region is less reliant on state-granted water due to a robust aquifer and recycling policy. Further arguments cite that the proposed construction site sits atop a precarious earthquake fault zone, thus the hefty price tag for development may not be worth it in the long run.

The decision to deny Poseidon the construction permit did come as a surprise to many, especially considering how the company formerly received the coveted permit back in 2016. Over the past five years, the state has implemented new regulations for desalination, thus forcing Poseidon to reapply for construction permission. Before the Commission returned their decision of denial, Poseidon vice president, Scott Maloni, remained hopeful of a positive outcome. “The [Santa Ana Regional Water Board] staff is recommending approval, so I’m confident that the staff has done their work and that the permit they’re recommending to their board is both scientifically sound and legally defensible,” said Maloni.

Despite the numerous compelling arguments on either side, there is no denying that drought conditions in Orange County are at an all time high, and have only heightened in the past 15 years. The traditional wet season in California, running from late autumn to the end of winter, was so dry that 95 percent of the state fell into a severe drought classification. In response to this, Governor Newsom pressed residents to decrease water consumption by 15 percent; some areas have even begun limiting or banning the watering of lawns in order to achieve this goal. With much of California’s water coming from melted snowpack, recent climate changes have made the struggle of accessing freshwater even greater. With these factors in mind, the debate over desalination becomes even more complicated.

Nearly 25 years of contest over gaining the rights to build the desalination facility will surely not end with the Coastal Commission’s decision of rejection. Poseidon water appears dedicated to this goal, and will continue to adapt their proposal, similar to how they have adapted with the evolving regulations. Recent planning modifications include reducing the water volume used, as well as installing a screen containing one millimeter slots to prevent marine animal loss. The Coastal Commission still holds the power to determine the fate of any hope for a desalination facility in the future.

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