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Huntington Beach desalination project would be money down the drain

CalMatters logo CalMatters 5/6/2022 Guest Commentary

In summary

Less expensive, more equitable alternatives to Brookfield-Poseidon’s proposed facility could keep water taps flowing in Southern California.

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By Kelly E. Rowe

Kelly E. Rowe is an engineering geologist, hydro-geologist and Orange County Water District director.

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Karl W. Seckel, Special to CalMatters

Karl W. Seckel is a water resources engineer and a director of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (Division 4).

As North Orange County residents, we are concerned about our future water supplies, and we hate seeing bad investments made with public dollars — especially for private entities. While North Orange County may not have the same drought burdens as other communities across California — given our robust aquifer — we know Brookfield-Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach Ocean Desalination Project is not the answer to bringing new water resources to our region. 

The California Coastal Commission should not approve the coastal development permit Poseidon seeks at the May 12 meeting. Rather, it should follow the guidance of the commission staff, who recommended its denial on April 25. 

A better solution is the Regional Recycled Water Project (the Carson project): It is much less expensive to treat wastewater than ocean water, and the project costs would be spread more equitably. It is a much more fair and climate-friendly solution.

As scientists and water engineers, we’ve assembled the facts to prove it. 

Under the regional Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Integrated Water Resources Plan, the reliability of our future water supplies is supported by a series of local and regional plans. The proposed Huntington Beach desalination boondoggle simply does not fit our current or future needs. If pursued, it will unduly burden local ratepayers with inflated costs. 

It also won’t deliver on Brookfield-Poseidon’s promise of drought-proofing Orange County.  

The Metropolitan Water District is pursuing recycling wastewater — a better, smarter solution that could be operational by 2030. The Carson project will add recycled wastewater to the Metropolitan Water District’s portfolio to make up for cuts to supplies imported from the Colorado River and the State Water Project. The Carson project is planned to produce up to 150 million gallons per day of high-quality water at a cost of about $1,800 per acre-foot.

If the Poseidon project becomes operational in Orange County, the Metropolitan Water District would allocate less water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project. The result: Orange County water users would get stuck paying as much as $2,800 per acre-foot for water. Without the burden of the Poseidon project, the Metropolitan Water District recycled wastewater and groundwater would cost about $1,200 per acre-foot.

Those who would benefit from the Poseidon project — the foreign entity and its investors — are disregarding climate science, including a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that calls desalination a maladaptation to climate challenges. 

Only the City of Huntington Beach would benefit from direct payments from Brookfield-Poseidon for hosting the project. Virtually every other city and water district north of Irvine would pay higher water costs with little drought protection, and residents would face paying up to four times more for water.  

This is not a good deal.

Orange County already has the most reliable groundwater supply in Southern California. The vast groundwater basin in North Orange County is well managed by Orange County Water District for the benefit of the 20 cities and water districts that pump 77% of their water supplies from the basin. 

Poseidon’s projected high costs do not include the cost of pumping water out of the groundwater basin, which would require new wells and additional investments by the local water agencies.

We must ensure the Metropolitan Water District fulfills its regional role in shoring up water reliability and that all 19 million water district customers pay for the needed improvements — not just Orange County residents. 

This is a better, wiser deal.

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The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone. Read an opposing viewpoint on this topic here.

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