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The California Coastal Commission rejected Poseidon’s desalination project in Huntington Beach. But it’s far from a death knell for desal.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was in support of Poseidon’s desalination project.

Christopher Neely here, coming up for air after nearly drowning under California’s water bureaucracy yesterday. 

The California Coastal Commission, an appointed 11-member board tasked with overseeing development and public access along the state’s 1,100 miles of coastline, took up one of the most high-profile water projects in recent memory: a $1.4 billion desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach. The plant, proposed by Poseidon Water, would use open ocean intake to draw about 107 million gallons of water per day from the ocean to produce about 50 million gallons of clean drinking water per day. 

Over the 24 years since the project was introduced, the desalination plant has drawn a revolving door of support and objection as sentiment around desalination has evolved over the decades. By the time the project reached the Coastal Commission’s desk on May 12, it had the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom and 60 members of the state legislature, yet remained the ire of various environmental groups and tribal organizations. 

In its public relations press ahead of the Coastal Commission vote, Poseidon warned that a no vote would symbolize the “death knell” for desalination in California. The Coastal Commission, after an eight-hour meeting and 200 public speakers, unanimously rejected the project. Coastal Commission staff, who recommended against the project, said the Poseidon plant was the “wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” 

However, the Commission said this rejection should not be seen as the nail in desalination’s coffin. Chair Donne Brownsey said the hearing represented a “microcosm of the challenging, complex issues facing us as humans in this moment.” She called for the state to develop a statewide plan on desalination that outlines some ground rules so that “businesses and government have clear expectations about what is going to be required so it’s not an ambiguous, extremely time-consuming process.” 

Desalination in Monterey County has been a polarizing issue for decades. And despite Poseidon’s warning, this denial does not mean the end of the desalination conversation here, despite the progress of water conservation and the planned expansion of Pure Water Monterey—a project that is under review with the California Public Utilities Commission. 

Two desalination plants are stirring in Monterey County, both proposed by publicly traded corporations. Local water utility California American Water is still working on its embattled Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project proposed for Marina, a roughly $330 million plant that would produce 6,250 acre-feet per year. The project has been advertised as a reliable, drought-proof water source but it has drawn concern about whether it is too expensive and too environmentally impactful. 

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Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp., a Canada-based, publicly traded company worth $11 billion, has proposed a brackish water desalination plant in Moss Landing through its subsidiary, Liberty Power. The project proposes to drill a series of wells in the 180/400-foot aquifer subbasin and, through extraction and desalination, produce up to 32,000 acre-feet of clean water per year when built out, and has been advertised as the answer to North County’s decades of seawater intrusion issues caused by over-pumping the region’s wells.

Both projects have proposed a method other than open ocean intake, a major red flag for the Coastal Commission in Poseidon’s project. Still, hurdles remain. Cal Am spokesperson Evan Jacobs says the company is working to get its desalination project in front of the Coastal Commission by the end of this year. However, Dave Stoldt, the Monterey Peninsula Water Monterey District’s boss, says Cal Am still needs to negotiate with wastewater agency Monterey One Water for use of its outfall pipes—negotiations he says have stalled for months. 

Algonquin’s project depends on whether the county’s Board of Supervisors will change a county ordinance to allow for private ownership and operation of desalination plants within the county—a model that has been prohibited since the 1980s. 

(Meanwhile, there are already at least two small desalination plants in Monterey County that are currently operational—one in Sand City and one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.) 

Poseidon’s rejection is far from desalination’s death knell in California. In fact, it could end up being the case that places a spotlight on desalination as a necessary tool in the state’s toolbox to fight the inevitably dry reality of California’s future. As my colleague Dave Schmalz wrote earlier this week: given that many now agree on the future need of desalination, it’s imperative to get the ball rolling on good projects now. It seems clear that we cannot afford another 24 years of back and forth.

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Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

(1) comment

Douglas Deitch

The local coastside and already approved "ASR-Aquifer Storage Recovery" projects Pure Water Monterey and Soquel (AND San Diego, etc.!!!), where so called "cleaned" local waste water is deeply and very expensively injected into our coastside aquifers for temporary mixing, storage, and later use and extraction, CANNOT POSSIBLY WORK when Sea Level Rise (SLR) is projected to be at least 1 foot and maybe much more!!! by 2050.

Use your common sense, if you have any, and simple logic to understand why, Mis Amigos y Mis Vecinos?

Why?: The one foot of SLR will push into our and all local coastside aquifers that are at or below sea level and force sea water and other pollutants into our still pristine for the most part local aquifer and pollute them too.

Capiche?

I hope so!

My 30 year old and ignored plan, the 21000 acre Monterey Bay Estuarine National monument including the repurposed to urban from ag 33000 acre feet/year of "DPR-Direct Potable Reuse" recycled water from the already extant and online Castroville Reclamation Plant, which also includes 63000 acre feet per year EVERY YEAR IN PERPETUITY of permanent and not later extracted/used Monterey Bay regional groundwater CONSERVATION and PERMANENT AQUIFER RECHARGE AND 21000 NEW ACRES OF NEW FARMLANDS BACK TO WETLANDS WILL SOLVE ALL OUR WATER PROBLEMS and best preserve our $5 billion year (10% of Cali's total $50 billion year farm production of USA's total $136 billion!) and many other benefits for us here.

That's why I am running for Congress to get us the $2.1 billion to fund this project with an emergency executive order from our Governor immediately authorizing and implementing my project for us!

Please check it out.

Best/health/tikkun olam,

Douglas Deitch

Democrat 19th District/San Jose Congressional Candidate

"The best that money CAN'T buy"

... google me and find out more?

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