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California rejects plans to alleviate ongoing drought with desalination plant

California has spent the majority of the last 15 years in drought conditions. This year, 95 percent of the state is classified as in severe drought.

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA

A California coastal panel rejected a long-standing proposal to build a $1.4 billion seawater desalination plant, even as the state grapples with ongoing drought.

The state’s Coastal Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to deny a permit for Poseidon Water to build a plant that would turn sea water into drinking water and produce 50 million gallons of water a day in Huntington Beach. The country’s largest seawater desalination plant is operating in San Diego County. There are also plants in Florida.

Over 20 years ago, Poseidon proposed building two desalination plants, the one in San Diego County, and one in Huntington Beach. The San Diego County plant was approved and built. Desalinated water now accounts for 10 percent of San Diego County Water District’s water supply

Poseidon’s proposal was supported by Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom but faced opposition from environmentalists who claimed the desalination process would kill billions of tiny marine organisms that make up the base of the food chain. In 2013, the Coastal Commission echoed those same concerns.

In response, Poseidon conducted additional studies and resubmitted the plan with a proposal to mitigate marine damage through restoration of nearby wetlands. However, in April, staff members for the panel issued a 200-page report opposing the project, and argued it fails to adhere to marine life protection policies and policies aimed at minimizing hazards from tsunamis and rising sea levels.

Other critics said the water would be too expensive and wasn't urgently needed in the area where it would be built.

The 12-member commission cited those reasons, the energy cost of running the plant and that it the plant would sit in an earthquake fault zone, in a staff recommendation rejecting the proposal.

The vote followed hours of comments from people packed into a hotel meeting room in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa and some online attendees.

California has spent the majority of the last 15 years in drought conditions. This year, 95 percent of the state is classified as in severe drought.

Newsom had previously said that a denial of the plant would be a "big setback" and "we need more tools in the damn tool kit" to address drought in the state.

Last summer, Newsom asked residents to cut their consumption by 15 percent. Since then, water usage has only dropped approximately 3 percent. Last month, Southern California's water supplier ordered approximately 6 million residents to reduce their outdoor watering to one day a week in response to the ongoing drought.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's board has declared a water shortage emergency, and will require the cities and water agencies that it supplies to implement a cutback on water usage on June 1 and enforce it, or face heart fines.

The Metropolitan Water District restrictions apply to areas of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties, including some parts of the city of Los Angeles. Most urban centers in those areas are impacted.

The Metropolitan Water District utilizes water from the Colorado River and the State Water Project to supply 26 public water agencies that provide water to 40 percent of the state’s population. The State Water Project, which obtains its water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, has estimated it will only be able to deliver approximately 5 percent of its usual annual allocation.

Although the water agencies support the water conservation move, it remains unclear if the public will comply. The Metropolitan Water District could order an all-out ban on outdoor watering as soon as September if the restrictions don’t work.

Though there have been record dry conditions, many are blaming poor water management for the problem. There has been no improvement to water storage infrastructure in the past 50 years, nor creation of efficient water storage.

The lack of storage is especially problematic given the West Coast's boom-and-bust cycle between having a severe drought only a few years after record rain and snowfall filled reservoirs to capacity.

Farmers in the state have blamed Newsom, as well as previous governors, for failing to dam rivers or build new reservoirs.

Last month, the board of the East Bay Municipal Utility District voted to reduce water usage by 10 percent and cap daily usage for 1.4 million customers in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, including Berkeley and Oakland.

Poseidon argued that the region would benefit by locking in a drought-proof source of water, as would inland communities. Additionally, states that could gain increased access to imported water supplies once the county can tap into desalinated water.

Some at the meeting on Thursday also debated the local demand for desalinated water. Orange County has a groundwater basin and recycles wastewater, making the region less dependent on imported water. The Orange County Water District, which has stated it intends to buy Poseidon’s water, manages the basin that helps meet approximately 75 percent of the demand in the central and northern parts of the county.

Orange County Water District's president Steve Sheldon said that desalinated water is more expensive now, but he expects the cost of imported water to also rise over time.


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