An Environmental Win regarding the Poseidon Ocean Desalination Plant proposed for Huntington Beach

  • Posted on 6 June 2022
  • By Everette Phillips, Communications Chair
Photo by LA Times
California and its residents need to live within the state's water means. The constant search to find so-called "new water" is exhausting. Water is a very finite resource, particularly with the acceleration of climate change – this is a fact and it can be twisted in many ways to cause our political leaders to make very poor environmental decisions. We have to learn to manage our water better. See Sierra Club's Smart Alternatives: A Sensible Water Management Portfolio.
The business interests behind a proposed ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach called Poseidon were very talented in using California’s anxiety regarding a potential new water source, to take action that would lead to more expensive water while causing long-term harm to the coastal environment. Through enormous volunteer effort over many years, the  California Coastal Commission was able to weigh the pros and cons of an ocean desalination plant at the site of the former AES power plant in Huntington Beach and voted unanimously to deny the proponents Brookfield-Poseidon a permit to proceed with the project.
Their decision is based on the Coastal Act of California – a law that has guided the commission's decisions since the late 1970s. The law requires careful weighing of the human impacts related to coastal industry and communities and both the local coastal environmental impact and the benefit to all Californians. The coast of California belongs to all of its residents and not just those who live within its tidal boundaries.
Brookfield-Poseidon saw a money-making opportunity when the AES power plant in line with California law had to change its once-through cooling technology which used ocean water, to a new system that did not need ocean water cooling. The pipes used to siphon water from the ocean to the plant are open intake, meaning there is limited protection for marine life that gets sucked into the pipes and are killed, leading to extreme marine mortality in the area around Huntington Beach. These small organisms are the basis of our food chain, so to mitigate the continued harmful effects on the building blocks of the food chain, the existing ocean intake systems were to be decommissioned.
However, here came Brookfield-Poseidon - Their business concept was simple, use the existing open intakes, use the new electric turbines, add desalination technology and pump desalinated ocean water into the taps of Orange County residents. A problem arose, however, when Brookfield-Poseidon couldn't find other purchasers of said water and Orange County Water District had too much costly water on their hands, so a new decision was reached. Orange County Water District would purchase all the water in a take or pay contract, but store it in the OCWD  aquifer, where there's plenty of storage available. Then they could collect a water surcharge from all residents like a toll charge on what was once free water. By mixing very expensive ocean desalinated water with existing less expensive water, they could guarantee to secure a larger community of taxpayers than directly selling expensive water to only the communities within the vicinity of the plant.  Although the consumer would normally sniff out such abuse, the business interests had the ability to exploit statewide water anxiety with the promise of an increase of only $5/month on their bills per household. Fear can be used to cause both consumers and politicians to make rash decisions.
The Poseidon plant was bad for consumers for many reasons, one of those being the fact that OCWD  customers had already invested in a tertiary sewage treatment facility to provide highly treated recycled water that exceeds state and Federal standards of drinking water. The OCWD Ground Water Replenishment System is within walking distance of the AES plant.  It already replenishes the Orange County aquifer with less expensive water and with its expansion in the works will treat up to 130 million gallons of water per day. Orange County residents already made the smarter investments, so there was no need for expensive water from Poseidon.
The Poseidon proposal was also bad for the coastal environment. The open ocean intakes would be harmful to marine life and the extra salty wastewater called brine would pollute local waters by creating dead zones, where fish don't survive because of the lack of oxygen in those particular areas. Imagine 50 years of constant pollution - how far would that pollution plume spread? Just a reminder, that because of the operation of the AES plant, that area is already degraded.
The lessons learned between the 1970s and the May 2022 Coastal Commission decision will make a future interesting article, especially since the years included intrigue related to shuffling political appointees and influencing elections to create water boards and other stewards of public trust to consider the business interests of a few, over the long term needs and benefits of California residents.
This effort required broad cooperation within the Sierra Club across California as well as coordination with many other environmental organizations. For the past 15 years, volunteer leaders such as Charming Evelyn, Ray Hiemstra, Yvonne Martinez Watson, Tom Williams, Craig Cadwallader, and Conner Everts have generously committed a remarkable amount of time and energy across a series of events that lead to the May decision. We also depended on Sierra Club California and Angeles Chapter staff members including past staffers like Kathryn Phillips, Kyle Jones, and Jennifer Robinson.
Proposals like the Brookfield-Poseidon Ocean Desalination plant have many reviews by different entities on the route to approval or denial of the project.  The Sierra Club volunteers need to coordinate with like-minded environmental leaders, agencies, consultants, and non-profits. Some partners in this endeavor were the Society of Native Nations, Lydia Ponce, Azul, OC CoastKeeper, CA CoastKeeper, Surfrider, CA Coastal Protection Network, R4RD, Sunrise Movement, Ocean Desal Response Group, and Environmental Water Caucus.
Although the ocean desalination issue for Huntington Beach has been resolved for now (it is said that the “…coast is never saved”), the issue of the ocean and brackish desalination remain in many other parts of the state.
Keep an eye open for desalination issues on our Chapter’s Take Action Now page, where we list AddUp campaigns to make it easy to learn about important issues and for taking action, whether signing a petition, lending a voice, distributing information, or attending a meeting.

Header Photo: Audience members against the proposed Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach, listen to speakers at the California Coastal Commission hearing to consider whether they will approve a permit for the company Poseidon Water to build a large desalination plant in Huntington Beach.(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)


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