Desalination: An Essential A part of California’s Water Future
Coastal Commission’s Recent Rejection of Huntington Beach Desalination Project Misguided
Let me begin this commentary with a disclaimer:
I used to be an early and robust proponent of Proposition 20, the successful 1972 California voter initiative measure that enacted the Coastal Act and created the California Coastal Commission (albeit temporarily). I supported with equal enthusiasm the state Legislature’s 1976 enactment of laws making each the Coastal Act and the Commission everlasting. For the past 50 years I’ve similarly advocated for robust implementation and enforcement of the Coastal Act. And one in all the highlights of my legal profession within the California Department of Justice was the privilege of representing the Coastal Commission in state and federal courts for over 1 / 4 century.
So it pains me to criticize a recent, closely-watched decision by the Coastal Commission to vote down–unanimously–a desalination plant that the Poseidon Water Company had proposed to construct on a remediated Superfund site in Huntington Beach, California. That plant would have converted roughly 50 million gallons of seawater per day into fresh water for urgently-needed residential, business and industrial water use in Southern California.
Governor Gavin Newsom, quite a few other state agencies and Southern California local governments all supported the Poseidon desalination project as a critical, recent source of fresh water within the face of “recent normal,” persistent and severe drought conditions plaguing most of California and the American Southwest. Nevertheless, the Coastal Commissioners rejected the project, citing environmental concerns.
Why is the Commission’s vote misguided? Let me count the ways.
First, desalination technology is neither recent nor unproven. For years “desal” has served as a key source of freshwater for nations like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. In California, a dozen desalination plants of assorted capacities are currently in operation. And Poseidon Water’s ability to design and construct a big, state-of-the-art desal plant is well-documented: one need only travel 60 miles down the California coast from Huntington Beach to seek out the desalination plant Poseidon built and currently operates in Carlsbad. That plant, approved by the Coastal Commission 15 years ago, commenced operation in 2015 and now provides a big fraction of the San Diego metropolitan area’s freshwater supply. It’s also the most important desalination plant in the US.
Second, while the Commission and a few environmental groups expressed concerns with claimed antagonistic environmental impacts of Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach desal project, those concerns seem highly exaggerated. The important thing environmental objections relate to: 1) fish and other marine organisms being sucked into (“entrained” by) the plant’s saltwater intake system; and a couple of) the discharge of brine water–a byproduct of the desalination process–back into the ocean. These were legitimate concerns with “first generation” desal projects that used massive intake pipes positioned atop the seabed, and discharged brine directly back into ocean waters. But more sophisticated, currently-available desal technology has largely alleviated those concerns. Dispersed, low pressure water intake systems deployed below the seabed can for probably the most part eliminate the entrainment problem. And at Poseidon’s existing desal plant in Carlsbad, settling ponds capture and dilute the discharged brine before it’s reintroduced into the ocean. (These technological advances mirror those of wind turbines used to generate renewable energy: early wind farms had an alarming propensity to kill a wide range of bird species that collided with turbine blades; those avian kills have been reduced dramatically in recent times, due to the introduction of larger, more visible and much slower-moving wind turbines.)
If the Coastal Commission had reservations about perceived antagonistic environmental impacts of the proposed Huntington Beach desal plant, it must have conditioned its approval of the ability on specific mitigation measures designed to handle those concerns moderately than reject the project out of hand.
Third, desal critics often cite the proven fact that the desalination process is energy-intensive. That’s true. But in its project application, Poseidon pledged to power the Huntington Beach plant exclusively from renewable energy sources, making it the primary carbon-neutral desal facility within the nation.
To make certain, conservation is the most effective, least expensive and quickest strategy available to stretch California’s dwindling water supplies. So it’s and will remain the primary option within the state’s water planning efforts. But most water experts agree that in an era of climate change, protracted drought conditions and attendant, dramatically shrinking water availability for California’s 40 million residents, we won’t have the option to easily conserve our way out of the state’s present and future water crisis. Simply put, we’ll need additional water supply as well.
And the “conservation only” strategy is flawed in one other essential respect: California’s environment actually requires more water in the longer term. Historically, drought and water shortfalls have hit California’s ecosystem needs way more severely than human water demands. The state’s rivers and lakes, along with freshwater fish and wildlife species, will all require substantial additional water to revive and sustain them in the longer term. Within the long-term, desalination–together with aggressive conservation measures–represents the most effective strategy to supply the water obligatory to take care of California’s imperiled freshwater ecosystems and environmental values.
Poseidon indicates it doesn’t plan to appeal the Coastal Commission’s rejection of the Huntington Beach project. Just like the Commission’s decision to kill the project, Poseidon’s announcement is unlucky.
Other desalination projects along California’s coast will likely be proposed, debated and voted on within the months and years to come back. Let’s hope the Coastal Commission, along with other state and native agencies with jurisdiction over desal projects, take a more enlightened, visionary and clear-eyed view of them in the longer term.