The California Coastal Commission (CCC) voted unanimously on Thursday to reject a Poseidon Water desalination plant from being built in Huntington Beach, stopping a project decades in the works during a time when California needs more freshwater to combat a drought in the state.
The Poseidon Water project, which would convert seawater to drinkable water, was first proposed in the early 2000’s and has been the subject of seven lawsuits and dozens of local efforts to stop the plant since 2005. Major changes were made in subsequent years, including large ones recommended by the CCC in 2013. Following the opening of a Carlsbad desalinization plant in 2015, the project went into the final stages, with plant approval flip-flopping between being approved and not approved by various courts in the late 2010’s. Finally, in 2021, the California Third District Court of Appeals ruled that the desalinization plant could be constructed. With a severe drought now hitting California again by this time, Governor Gavin Newsom even backed the proposal despite some opposition from within his party.
However, a few final hurdles remained, including the crucial CCC vote. Originally scheduled for March, the meeting was pushed back by two months earlier this year. In April, a CCC staff report recommended rejecting the plant due to the environmental damage and concern over the $1.4 billion cost of the plant. However, with new reports coming in since the recommendation showing that reservoir levels and drought conditions have become even worse than expected this year, some hoped that the dire situation would help turn around the CCC Board on Thursday.
But, during the the vote in Costa Mesa on Thursday, CCC Commissioners noted that environmental issues, including salt discharge being pumped back out into the ocean and raising salinity levels around there to significantly damage ocean life, would prevent them from approving the plant. Other issues, such as the projected high cost of the water being reclaimed, fresh water not being urgently needed in the area, the high amount of electricity needed to run the plant, and the plant sitting nearby an earthquake zone, were also listed as reasons for the CCC to reject the plant proposal.
“The ocean is under attack from climate change already. I cannot say in good conscience that this amount of damage is OK,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said on Thursday.
Environmentalists and others in opposition cheered the news after the vote, as many saw the vote as a final stand against the plant being built.
“All that salt going right back in the ocean would have just killed everything,” explained science teacher Mary Cass Lewis, who was at the protest outside the CCC meeting, to the Globe on Friday. “Microorganisms and all the way up. If we didn’t help take a stand now it would be built. California needs water, but not this badly.”
CCC rejects Huntington Beach desalination plant plan
Conversely, Poseidon expressed disappointment on Thursday
“This was not the decision we were hoping for today,” said Poseidon Water in a statement. “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 for Orange County, just as it has for San Diego County.”
Water and irrigation experts also noted their disapproval of the CCC’s decision.
“I don’t think they realized what they just did,” explained Alonzo Taylor-Morgan, a water control specialist, to the Globe on Friday. “Desalination is probably California’s best shot at bring massive amounts of fresh water into the state. Other plants have shown that salt can be put back into the ocean safely because, guess what, water moves. They aren’t looking at the bigger picture here, and it’s just sad to see that. Water restrictions will only do so much. New technology can reduce usage too, but we haven’t reached the point where it can stave off a drought. We need new sources. Even if Orange County doesn’t need it now, neighboring counties like LA sure as hell can use it.”
“The CCC should be ashamed with themselves on this decision. We’ve shown that plants can be safe, but they chose to hurt the people of California instead.”
As of Friday, Poseidon Water has not said what their next step is with the plant following the CCC rejection.