California Panel Unanimously Quashes Desalination Plant

By: - May 16, 2022 12:00 am

A worker monitors the seawater desalination process at a facility in Carlsbad, Calif. The California Coastal Commission rejected a proposal to build a similar plant in Huntington Beach. Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

The California Coastal Commission last week unanimously rejected a private company’s proposal to build a desalination plant southeast of Los Angeles capable of producing 50 million gallons of freshwater a day.

The commission cited environmental and economic costs in denying the plan, ranging from sea life being killed during water intake to rising water bills and sea levels.

“I cannot find a way to say this kind of harm to marine life is acceptable,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said during the heated meeting.

As drought rages in the Western United States, purifying seawater could offer an unlimited supply of drinkable water, especially as the climate crisis worsens in the coming years, argued Poseidon, the company behind the proposal. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom also supported the proposal.

“California continues to face a punishing drought, with no end in sight,” said Jessica Jones, director of communications for Poseidon, in a statement after the commission’s decision. “Every day, we see new calls for conservation as reservoir levels drop to dangerous lows. We firmly believe that this desalination project would have created a sustainable, drought-tolerant source of water.”

The proposed facility in Huntington Beach would have joined another desalination plant further south in San Diego County, which supplies a tenth of the region’s water.

Nearly all of California remains in severe drought. Snowpack is well below average, while reservoirs across the West are at record low levels. States will have to find new sources of water and implement potentially drastic restrictions on water consumption, experts warn.

But environmental groups soundly opposed the proposed $1.4 billion seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach, arguing the purifying process not only is too energy intensive but also kills marine life critical to the local ecosystem.

Environmental activists celebrated the decision.

“The commission showed the environmental justice laws of the state of California and the environmental justice policy of the Commission itself were not just words on a page, but living, breathing pledges to do what was right, despite the political pressure,” said Andrea Leon-Grossman, director of climate action for Azul, a Latino-led ocean conservation organization, in a statement.

Before the meeting, the Coastal Commission’s staff advised against the proposal, saying in a 200-page report that the economic and environmental costs were too high to justify the desalination plant. Water bills were expected to rise for the area, which drew the ire of advocates for low-income communities. Rising sea levels also threatened the facility.

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.