Water Board Blocks Study of Alternatives to $1 Billion Desal Plant – Misleads State Commission

By John Earl

(Minor editing was conducted on this story Feb. 17 for clarity)

Representatives of the Orange County Water District gave false information at a public hearing of the California State Lands Commission to push a proposed $1 billion ocean desalination plant closer to final approval.

The OCWD manages the Santa Ana River Basin and provides north Orange County with 75 percent of its water.

The developer, Poseidon Resources, wants to build the desal plant on state-owned coastal land in southeast Huntington Beach. The plant would produce about 56,000 acre-feet of drinking water from local seawater per year under a 30 to 50-year take-or-pay contract with the OCWD.

The hearing was held in Huntington Beach last October 19. The SLC approved a supplemental Environmental Impact Report for the project and extended Poseidon’s 2010 lease with minor changes until 2025.

OCWD Board of Directors  Dina Nguyen, Cathy Green, Shawn Dewane, Steven Sheldon, with president Denis Bilodeau speaking on their behalf, claimed that the board studied the project alternatives and that there is a demonstrated need for the project.

“I guess what I’m looking for,” Commissioner Betty Yee asked, skeptically, “is have you fully considered all these [alternatives] before really looking at the water to be produced by the site, which is obviously going to be the most expensive?”

“Uh, yes. We certainly have,” Bilodeau assured. “Really, the only opportunity we have besides Poseidon is the expansion of the Groundwater Replenishment System [the District’s sewage recycling plant],” he claimed.

Yee pressed harder.

What’s missing, she said, “is the analysis of these alternative water sources as compared to what would be produced by the Poseidon facility.”

Then, Yee got to the heart of the matter:

“And it’s a little hard to figure out whether the Poseidon water that would be produced is really more – I’ll use the word arbitrary – with respect to a desire to replace imported water as compared to really being integral to meeting the overall water needs.”

Bilodeau: “Well, again, we have looked at all of the” –

Yee: “Or discretionary.”

Bilodeau: “Yeah. I mean, we are obviously looking at all of our alternatives.”

OCWD President, Denis Bilodeau, at State Lands Commission hearing on Poseidon.

But the OCWD Board of Directors has all but officially backed the project since 2013, working intimately and secretly with Poseidon to see it through every stage of the permitting process.

In fact, so far, the OCWD board has precluded its staff from reporting back about project alternatives, instead glibly promising to study them after all but signing a final contract with Poseidon.

Meanwhile, the Municipal Water District sent a letter to the commission stating that an in-depth reliability study it conducted for all of Orange County found no special need for the project compared to many alternatives.

Even if a need for Poseidon’s water could be demonstrated, it would not add a drop to OCWD’s water supply.

That’s because, under terms imposed on a required $400 million government subsidy, Poseidon’s water would offset an equal amount of imported water (that OCWD buys to replenish water pumped from the basin) and the much cheaper imported water will go to residents located outside of the OCWD service area, courtesy of OCWD ratepayers.

From a ratepayer’s perspective, paying three times as much (estimated cost of Poseidon water compared to imported water) for water that you won’t get is absurd. But OCWD directors who support the project say that the ocean is an endless supply of fresh drinking water that provides security against vanishing imported water supplies; so the Poseidon project is worth it, even if it costs a lot more and will kill massive quantities of marine life.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires consideration of project alternatives, including no project at all. If there is no need for Poseidon, or if alternative approaches preclude that need,  denying the project serves the public’s best interests.

The SLC violated CEQA by approving an Environmental Impact Report that didn’t consider those alternatives, according to plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in November to challenge the commission’s decision.

Denis Bilodeau declined to respond for the record.

Next Tuesday (Feb. 20): how members of the OCWD Board of Directors broke promises to study alternatives to the proposed Poseidon ocean desalination project.  Next Monday (Feb. 26): Secret meetings 

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