Chronicle: 5 things Newsom got wrong about the desalination plant

Governor Gavin Newsom weighed in again.

He backs the huge Huntington Beach desalination plant which is to be voted on Thursday before the Coastal Commission.

I weighed too.

This is a very, very bad idea, as I explained in December.

Let’s start with what Newsom had to say about the controversial project, which has been on the drawing board for years.

“We need more tools in the damn toolbox,” Newsom told the Bay Area News Group editorial board in late April, doubling down on his earlier support. “We are as stupid as we want to be. What more evidence do you need to have more tools in the toolbox than what we experienced? Seven of the past 10 years have had severe droughts.

The governor is not entirely wrong.

We need more tools to fight drought, a catastrophic threat to the state that could soon force drastic reductions in water use.

And we’re as dumb as we want to be.

So let me now lay out five reasons why this is a dumb idea, for the benefit of the governor and the coastal commissioners who will decide what insiders expect to be a toss, despite recommending against the project by Coastal Commission staff.

First: This part of Orange County does not need water.

Many parts of the state are in dire straits when it comes to water supply, but not this particular area. As noted by me and others, this part of Orange County has groundwater supplies that are expected to last for decades, as well as plenty of recycled water, thanks to substantial conservation efforts.

Poseidon, the private company seeking massive state aid to build the plant, is determined to pump 100 million gallons of water from the ocean every day, which might make sense if it had a customer. But no water agency has registered to buy the water.

That’s not to say desalination isn’t part of our future on this scorched planet. It is used all over the world, and California has 12 desalination plants in areas of the state where water is needed. A smaller plant, proposed for the Doheny State Beach area, has broad support and a water agency that badly needs the supply.

The proposed site of the Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach. The plant would draw 106 million gallons of seawater a day through a huge offshore intake pipe, which would be screened, and use reverse osmosis membranes to rid the seawater of salt and impurities.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

But desalination is expensive – making the water more expensive than conventionally treated water, and that trickles down to customers. If the idea is to transport desalinated water from Huntington Beach to parts of the state that need it, that would make the water roughly the price of champagne.

Second: There is an environmental price to pay.

State scientists and environmental groups have warned of harmful effects on plankton, fish larvae and the wider marine ecosystem, thanks to massive amounts of inputs and discharges (the treatment process creates a super brackish soup that would be returned to the ocean).

And you don’t run a plant that size on solar or wind power.

In my last column on the project, Andrea Leon-Grossman of the marine conservation and environmental justice nonprofit Azul noted that climate change and drought are directly linked to greenhouse gas emissions. . It is therefore counterproductive to erect a massive factory that would burn more fossil fuel.

Poseidon officials say environmental fears are overblown or will be mitigated. They would have you believe that the for-profit company, which essentially privatizes a public resource while asking for handouts from taxpayers, is doing us all a favor.

“The effects of climate change are making seawater desalination a must in California,” Scott Maloni, director of Poseidon, told me.

Sure, if location and engineering makes sense. But even then, desalination should be a last resort.

“This particular project is in the wrong place to meet the needs we have today or in the future, given the feasible lower cost alternatives available, such as recycled water from our existing wastewater treatment plants” said Ron Gastelum, former chief executive of the Metropolitan Water District. “Recycled water is, statewide, a great untapped resource.”

It would make more sense and produce a lot more water to accelerate and expand recycling and conservation efforts across the state.

Third: Political stench can cause high blood pressure and nosebleeds.

Poseidon, owned by a Canadian company with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, spent nearly $1 million lobbying for the project and applied for government loans and grants totaling about $2 billion. In its latest act of shameless begging, the corporation has requested $1.1 billion from a government bond fund largely intended to produce affordable housing.

But with friends in high places, why wouldn’t Poseidon go panning for gold? Surely you remember the foie gras faux pas when Newsom was caught having dinner at the French Laundry in wine country while telling us commoners to stay home during COVID-19. Let’s not forget why he was there. It was a birthday party for his buddy, a Poseidon lobbyist.

It was the same governor who removed William von Blasingame, a member of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, who raised uncomfortable questions about the need for the desalination plant and what it would ultimately cost taxpayers. Von Blasingame, after being fired, shared some solid advice for Newsom with me:

“When you’re governor, sometimes you have to say no to friends.”

Fourth: Environmental justice issues cannot be ignored.

The commission staff recommendation, which Newsom said he did not bother to read in detail, succinctly explains the problem:

“The location of the proposed project is in an area with a concentration of industrial development and a history of contamination issues. Area residents fear adding more industrial development to an area already struggling with existing damage to a nearby sewage treatment plant, power plant, partially remediated Superfund site, ‘a former oil tank farm and a former landfill.

Then there’s a UCLA study that warned of “moderate to severe rate hikes” likely to hit low-income households the hardest. Oscar Rodriguez, co-founder of a Huntington Beach neighborhood group called Oak View ComUNIDAD, told me that wasn’t surprising. Public projects, he said, often hurt low-income communities first and benefit them last.

“I grew up in this neighborhood…and we already have environmental issues,” Rodriguez said. “I think the governor needs to support the staff report and support our local communities. This is why the Coastal Commission was created – to ensure that the coast is protected from industrialisation.

Fifth: A decisive moment for the Coastal Commission.

Rodríguez is right. The 12 Coastal Commissioners, four of whom were appointed by Newsom, are on hand to decide who they serve and what their mission is. Some of the commissioners run for public office, which raises the stakes, as it may mean a choice between doing the right thing and satisfying the donors.

Several years ago, the commission deviated from its initial mandate to ensure the protection and enhancement of the coastline, responsible development and access for all. Wealthy developers and owners have hired powerful lobbyists to make their bid. The lobbyists had connections all the way to the top of state government and warm relations with commissioners, some of whom were accused of breaking rules on private conversations with developers and other parties, resulting in lawsuits and laws.

Public scrutiny and good journalism were effective disinfectants, and today there is a different set of commissioners at the helm.

We will know a lot about them during the vote on desalination on Thursday at 9 a.m.

(To watch the live stream, go to

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Los Angeles Times

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