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Huge Huntington Beach Desalination Plant Proposal Stalls Out

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A controversial desalination plant proposed for a site on the coastline in Huntington Beach hit a California-Coastal-Commission-shaped snag yesterday, sending the company behind the project, Poseidon Resources, back to the drawing board. The Huntington Beach plant and another Poseidon desalination project under construction in Carlsbad would be the largest desalination operations in the country, each producing enough drinking water every year to supply 100,000 households (that's 50 million gallons of fresh water a day). But the Huntington Beach plant's situation is a lot more environmentally fraught than the Carlsbad plant, and yesterday's hearing before the CCC drew about 300 attendees to argue the issue. The CCC eventually decided to take up the matter again at a later date, and Poseidon then pulled its application, although they are expected to resubmit in 2014.

The problems with the proposed HB plant highlight the reasons desalination is not yet (if ever) the silver bullet water supply solution that so many people on the West Coast hope it could be. The main environmental issue involves seawater intake and discharge--according to an LA Times article before yesterday's hearing, "Poseidon intended to avoid the expense and environmental problems of building and operating ocean intake and discharge systems by locating its facilities next to power stations and tapping into the huge volumes of seawater used to cool the generating equipment." The proposed system would negatively affect "more than 80 million fish larvae, eggs and invertebrates along 100 miles of the Southern California coast, including a number of Marine Protected Areas." That kind of impact is exactly why new state regulations are requiring power stations to phase out seawater cooling systems.

The CCC staff recommended a different method--subsurface water intakes just below the ocean floor--but Poseidon hasn't studied that option and claims that kind of system could possibly kill their project.

Then there is the question of economic cost. Desalination is a very expensive process, requiring a great deal of electricity to filter the water before the expense of moving the water is even factored in. In the end, the plant would produce some of the most expensive drinking water in the state. Unlike San Diego County, which lies at the end of the state water supply chain, Orange County has abundant groundwater resources to draw from, and already has recycled water treatment plants to supplement that local supply. And although the Orange County Water District supports the plant, Poseidon has yet to sign up any firm customers for the Huntington Beach project.

Although Poseidon pulled the application for the project, KPCC reports that they do not intend to give up. The Carlsbad facility required ten years of permit review before it was finally approved. The new facility could end up taking at least as long--Poseidon first submitted a permit for the Huntington Beach plant in 2006.
· Proposed desalination plant could harm ocean environment, report says [LA Times]
· Poseidon withdraws Huntington Beach desalination permit application; coastal commission tables vote [KPCC]