California desalination plant suffers setback with denial recommendation

A California desalination plant project that would produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day failed a crucial regulatory hurdle on Monday, possibly dooming a project that had been promoted as a partial solution to a prolonged drought. California Coastal Commission staff have recommended denying approval for the Huntington Beach plant proposed by Poseidon Water, controlled by the infrastructure arm of Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management.

Commission staff said the project is more sensitive to sea level rise than thought when it was first proposed more than two decades ago. The plant is expected to produce 50 million gallons (189.3 million liters) of drinking water per day, enough for 16% of homes in Orange County’s water district, home to 2.5 million people. Commission staff also found the project harmful to nearby fish and bird habitat, said the ground beneath the plant posed an earthquake hazard, and the plant’s higher cost of water squeeze low-income consumers.

“When Poseidon first proposed settling here almost 25 years ago, sea level rise projections were much lower and adaptation planning was in its infancy,” says staff report. “Since that time, our understanding of the severity and consequences of climate change and sea level rise has increased exponentially.” It also increased the chances of rising seas elsewhere in California. The proposed desalination plant would be located on low-lying land approximately 50 km south of Los Angeles.

“By 2050 to 2070, the surrounding area could experience regular flooding,” the report said. Environmentalists have long campaigned against the plant, saying desalination is decimating ocean life, costs too much money and energy, and would soon be rendered obsolete by water recycling.

The Coast Commission, which is due to consider the issue on May 12, could defy the staff’s recommendation and vote to approve the project, but it rarely does. The 12-member commission is made up of six local elected officials and six members of the public who are appointed by the governor, a senatorial committee and the speaker of the assembly.

Poseidon has operated a similar plant, the largest in the United States, on the coast in Carlsbad since 2015, but was approved locally before the state passed regulations for desalination plants. The company, which hoped to open the $1.4 billion Huntington Beach plant by the end of this year, said commission staff “erred in their recommendation” and called on political leaders to save the project.

“California elected officials and regulators should consider the dire consequences this recommendation will have on desalination in California,” Poseidon said in a statement. “If this recommendation is maintained, it will be the death knell for desalination in California,” he said.

But some environmentalists, while praising the report’s findings, were not yet happy. “This is not a victory. We still have to go through the (May 12) hearing,” said Andrea Leon-Grossmann, director of climate action for ocean conservation group Azul.

California Governor Gavin Newsom had offered conditional support for the project, as long as it could be done responsibly. Responding to the recommendation, Alex Stack, a spokesman for the governor, said California was facing an unprecedented drought and the first three months of this year were the driest on record.

“This administration is committed to ensuring the sustainability of California’s water supply with a comprehensive strategy, and that includes desalination,” Stack said in a statement. “California regions must continue to innovate on local projects as climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.”

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)