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Huntington Beach desalination plant is a crucial tool in California’s climate change arsenal

CalMatters logo CalMatters 5/6/2022 Guest Commentary

In summary

Brookfield-Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach Ocean Desalination Project would help ensure reliability of the state’s long-term water supplies and ecosystem health.

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By Mark Donovan, Special to CalMatters

Mark Donovan is chair of the CalDesal board of directors.

On May 12, the California Coastal Commission is expected to consider final approval of the Huntington Beach desalination plant. Poseidon Water has weaved through the state’s complex and evolving regulatory landscape for nearly two decades in pursuit of that development permit.

Signing off on this project would demonstrate that seawater desalination — a proven water resource technology relied upon around the world to combat the effects of climate change and drought — has a future in California.

For decades, California has been at the forefront of policies to clean our air and waterways and protect endangered species, but as the climate change challenges we face become more complex, this commitment will be tested.

California is well into its third year of drought and is experiencing the driest 22 years in more than a thousand years. Water allocations from federal and state water projects are at or near zero. Mandatory water use restrictions for millions of Californians are being invoked in many parts of the state. 

It once may have been enough to embrace more stringent conservation efforts, but now, as some of the easy solutions have been exhausted, we will face far more difficult and nuanced choices in how we manage our state through frequent and prolonged droughts.

One solution that is immune to snowpack levels and dry years is desalination. There’s no reason why an environmental leader such as the Golden State shouldn’t embrace this technology.

The Legislature first declared that California had a primary interest in the development of water desalination in 1965. A coastal desalination plant could eliminate the need for or supplement imported water in favor of a locally available and easily managed water supply.

Today, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration promotes a portfolio of actions to ensure the state’s long-term water supplies and ecosystem health in the face of climate change. The governor’s plan includes developing more seawater desalination facilities to enhance regional water supply diversification. Seawater desalination is the only 100% climate-resilient new water supply available to California.

Desalination facilities around the world are producing drinking water each day. For example, several large-scale seawater desalination plants have been built in Australia since 2000, and Israel secures more than 70% of its drinking water from the Mediterranean Sea. 

To protect public health and safety and its economy, Santa Barbara successfully reactivated a facility initially built in the early 1990s. In addition, the city of Carlsbad hosts the largest, most technologically advanced and energy-efficient desalination facility in the Americas. To date it has produced 87 billion gallons of drought-proof drinking water, and more is on the way. 

State Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins has called Carlsbad a model for seawater desalination done right in the state of California. Other facilities — large and small, coastal and inland — are in various stages of planning, providing hope that the full potential of the technology can be realized in the near future.

The proposed Huntington Beach facility will set new environmental standards for desalination projects. The facility already has been found by local and state environmental agencies to comply with all applicable environmental laws and standards, and state regulators have determined that the facility will use the best available site, design, technology and mitigation measures feasible to protect marine life. The facility, sited on industrial land, is 100% carbon neutral and seeks to be the first desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere to be powered with 100% renewable energy.

California has exhausted the easy and simple solutions to climate change. Going forward, we will have to embrace a variety of measures to establish water resilience and continue the fight against climate change. The Coastal Commission will have that chance on May 12.

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