Ocean desalination, the bigger picture

Friday, January 3, 2014
Ray Hiemstra

As we look back on 2013 to gauge our progress in protecting the environment, one bright spot is the progress made regarding ocean desalination. At the beginning of the year, there were 16 ocean desalination projects being considered throughout California. Many of these projects were very controversial due their potential impact on the environment, high costs and lack of public support. The California Water Board was in the early stages of developing a statewide policy for desalination and project proponents were rushing to get their projects approved before this policy was completed. 

No project better epitomized this situation than the Huntington Beach Desalination Project. This project, proposed by Poseidon Water, a Connecticut corporation, was looking to profit in the public drinking water market.  Poseidon Water had recently gained the final approval for their Carlsbad Desalination Plant, over the strenuous objection of the California Coastal Commission staff, and they were confident that they could ram their Huntington Beach Project past the commission in the same manner.

But things were to be different in Orange County than in San Diego.

Why activists prevailed

In early 2013, the Angeles Chapter joined a coalition of environmental and community groups to oppose the Huntington Beach proposal due to its dependence on old technology that would devastate the marine environment and high energy needs that world impact climate change. Through the year there were e-mail alerts and presentations at local Sierra Club groups and chapter members responded by submitting thousands of letters to the Governor, Coastal Commission and Orange County Water District asking them to oppose the plant as designed. 

In November this effort came to a turning point when hundreds of opponents to the project, including many Sierra Club members, turned out a Coastal Commission hearing on the project and the commission decided to continue Poseidon’s Coastal Development Permit (CDP) application rather than approve it.  This decision also resulted in Poseidon having to withdraw a second CDP application for the project and put the project in suspension rather than allowing it to move forward. 

This was a huge victory for the Club and the environmental community. Poseidon had spent millions of dollars and years of time lobbying politicians to support their project in an effort to use politics rather than good science to gain approval. The Sierra Club played a key role in providing public opposition to the project and we should be proud of our work, however this victory is just part of the continuing effort we will need to maintain to protect our environment form poorly designed desalination proposals. 

Looking ahead to state's desalination policy

While the public airing of the facts of ocean desalination has made it less popular than ever (projects in Santa Cruz and Monterey appear to be dead), Poseidon is working to stall and weaken the statewide desalination policy that is still under development. And they are pushing the Orange County Water District to move forward with a commitment to buy their desalinated water, even before the plant is approved by the Coastal Commission.

So 2014 will continue to be a year where desalination is a big issue. Poseidon will likely be back with a revised proposal for Huntington Beach, and the West Basin Water District is continuing to work on their proposal for a desalination plant in El Segundo. So keep an eye out for more news on ocean desalination 2014 and information on what you can do to make sure that any project considered is actually needed and uses the best available technology to protect the environment. You can be sure that we will need to weigh in, at both the state and local levels to insure that good science rather than politics decides how desalination moves forward in California.


As a longtime Sierra Club member and strong environmentalist, I am heartened that you opposed Poseidon's efforts to build potentially harmful facilities.
But I think we need to be careful not to oppose...and in fact to encourage...desalination in the longer term. Continuing to draw down groundwater aquifers is at least as damaging to the environment, and pulling water from the Colorado River and San Francisco Bay is increasingly opposed by local groups and others who want a larger share of those dwindling sources.
In the long run, we have two options here in southern CA: Reduce the demand for water or find another source. Since most of the water goes for agriculture, reducing residential demand can have only a limited effect, which will be largely offset by a population that continues to grow.
The answer has to be desalination. We just have to make sure that it is done correctly

We need to follow the lead of Las Vegas and their water use. They don't allow lawns and only allow watering early in the morning or late afternoon. They recycle all their water and even have water cops.

My question is, where does the salt go that is removed from the water? If back into the ocean, soon that will have too much saline and we will end up with a huge Salton Sea. Dead fish floating on the water and the smell, is disgusting as well as sad. Like Mel said above about watering schedules, I whole heartedly agree. We need to do something about all the water waste that goes on, that is for sure!

Desalination is the obvious long term solution. Build out desalination to 50Maf per year.

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