Surfrider worked for twenty years to prevent the Poseidon desalination plant from moving forward. The project would have irreparably undermined the state’s environmental justice commitments, climate change goals and sea level rise adaptation policies. There was simply no way to mitigate the enormous harm that the facility would have inflicted on the community and the environment — 'stopping' Poseidon became our only option.
The proposed Poseidon desalination plant would have not only been terrible for Orange County, it also would not have solved the state's water supply needs. For example, the project wouldn't reduce state water imports, it also would not have provided water to places that have more of a need for new water supplies, such as parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties. The Municipal Water District of Orange County's latest water reliability study does not show any significant water supply shortfalls through at least 2045 and even then, the region cold be investing in water recycling, green infrastructure and water efficiency solutions.
California should spend its time and money supporting sustainable investments and innovation, not on projects that damage ocean life and make climate change worse. The latest IPCC climate change report specifically calls out desalination as a problem that makes the climate crisis worse. The particular proposed site of the Poseidon plant would have been located in historic wetlands, and would have been vulnerable to sea level and groundwater rise within the next decade. Building in this location would go against sea level rise adaptation policy guidance from the state and the California Coastal Commission. It's time to focus on how to restore the wetlands in this area to help provide a carbon sink and protect the community from rising seas.
For two decades starting in the early 2000s, Poseidon Resources – owned by global developer Brookfield Infrastructure Partners – tried to fast-track a multi-billion-dollar desalination plant that would have been one of the largest in the country. This water would come at a cost of 4-6 times existing supplies and would violate many of the state's laws and policies designed to protect environmental justice communities, coastal communities, the climate and marine life. Poseidon has spent over $1.6 million lobbying for the project, and never even had any confirmed buyers for the water!
In our campaign, we identified six major problems with Poseidon’s proposal:
1. We don’t need the water
Orange County’s most recent water plan, published April 2016, indicates the County can meet its water needs through 2040 without the plant. And Orange County has a range of less expensive, more sustainable options for developing new water supplies.According to the Pacific Institute, water conservation and efficiency improvements − like those called for in the state’s new water plan − could reduce water use by a third.
2. It’s a bad deal for consumers and may harm environmental justice communities
The billion-dollar plant would increase water bills for hard-working families to line the pockets of Poseidon and its international parent company.
Poseidon wants Orange County to sign a 50-year ‘take or pay’ contract that commits ratepayers to buying the county’s most expensive water and guarantees returns for Poseidon. Orange County has firsthand experience with the high cost of public-private partnerships that put corporate profits above public benefit.
3. It would undermine California’s climate goals
Desalination is the most energy intensive way to produce fresh water, using three times more energy than water recycling. The proposed location is vulnerable to floods from storms and rising seas and would limit surrounding communities options for adapting to these changing conditions, check out this virtual simulation of Huntington Beach and the flood risk to the proposed site. The latest IPCC climate change report specifically calls out desalination as a problem that makes the climate crisis worse.
4. We have smarter water supply options
Orange County’s state-of-the-art water recycling facility produces twice the capacity of Poseidon’s proposed plant for a fraction of the cost; it is being expanded now. Orange County still discharges about 100 million gallons of water into the ocean every day, indicating that there are additional reuse opportunities.
5. It will harm valuable ocean fisheries without reducing stress on freshwater systems
Outdated intake pipes will suck up tons of plankton, eggs, fish and shellfish, damaging California’s globally significant marine ecosystems.
Chemical-laden brine will pollute the water near nine marine protected areas. Despite claims by Poseidon’s lobbyists, seawater desalination will not reduce stress on the Bay Delta or other freshwater systems.
6. Poseidon is a bad actor
Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant has failed to deliver a fifth of the water promised to San Diego County Water Authority, and racked up more than a dozen water quality violations during its first year of operations. They have yet to begin constructing their required marine life mitigations project which involves wetlands restoration in South San Diego Bay, despite having been operating and killing ocean life since 2015. The proposed Huntington Beach plant does not meet state rules designed to reduce environmental impacts, and Poseidon has resisted the push to modernize and comply.
Two permit attempts were submitted in 2013 and 2015 to the California Coastal Commission. In 2013, Poseidon withdrew their permit after the Coastal Commissioners made it clear more information was required. The Coastal Commission then assembled an independent scientific technical advisory panel (ISTAP) to assess feasibility for alternative ocean intake technology. The expert panel was completing phase 2 and preparing to enter phase 3 when the State Water Board adopted its new Ocean Plan amendment on desalination regulations. That amendment requires all seawater desalination facilities use the “best available” site, design, technology and mitigation measures feasible. It establishes that the State and Regional Boards have primary authority to determine whether proposed facilities meet that standard. The amendment also establishes that subsurface intakes are the preferred method for facilities to obtain seawater.
The environmental community and local citizen groups oppose this project because it does not meet recommendations by the science community to minimize threats to marine life and address energy implications. Approving the Poseidon facility would have set the worst possible standard for future ocean desalination proposals statewide.
In 2017, the California State Lands Commission voted to approve a supplemental environmental impact report and lease amendment to deal with project changes since original approval. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board tentatively approved the project in 2019 - a final approval was granted in 2021.
The California Coastal Commission finally denied the project on May 12, 2022. This victory made local state and national news. Here's what the LA Times reported. Check out the California region blog for more details!