The OC Register reported that a phone poll shows that 71 percent of the city’s voters support a desalination plant proposed to be built on the corner of Newland Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach and only 14 percent oppose it (July 24, Support for desalination plant rising, company says).
The poll also shows a substantial decrease in local opposition to the plant from 2004, when another poll showed that 27 percent of Surf City residents were opposed to the plant, the Register story says.
Regardless of the poll results, the plant is opposed by citizen groups statewide, including Residents for Responsible Desal (R4RD) in Huntington Beach.The article was written by Register staffer Jaimee Lyn Fletcher who has reported on the proposed desalination plant before. As Fletcher less than accurately reported, both polls were “conducted” by Poseidon Resources Inc., the company that seeks to build the plant (more on that later).
In the first poll, 65 percent of respondents favored the plant. The supposed 7 percent increase since then indicates that as the public becomes more informed about the project public support grows, Poseidon officials told Fletcher.
But Fletcher’s article, like the poll it purports to inform its readers about, is laced with deception and wrapped in secrecy, no doubt providing a service to Poseidon but leading the Register’s unknowing readers astray in this election year.
Background Some background: Poseidon is a multinational corporation that seeks footholds in Surf City and the city of Carlsbad (in San Diego County) with two similar desalination plants, enabling the company to privatize a publicly owned resource—the ocean—for corporate profit.
When approving the Surf City plant in 2006, Poseidon and its city council advocates joined hands to promote it as a privately funded venture—with absolutely no risk to taxpayers—an environmentally friendly and desperately needed weapon for inclusion in drought-drenched California’s water portfolio.
Poseidon’s Carlsbad project started the same way, but the public relations campaign that won its local and state agency permits has failed so far to create a desalination plant or the hope of one any time soon. The main problem is that it costs too much.
Poseidon begged the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the San Diego County Water Authority for a combined $630 million in public subsidies, i.e. money from taxpayers’ pockets that could be used for rebates to encourage conservation (the most cost effective way to ensure adequate water supplies). The sought after bailout would have created the illusion of maintaining lower water rates for the public while providing the security required that attracts private investors. Poseidon was ultimately turned down and the Authority—despite the financial obstacles—sought a new approach.
On July 22 the Authority decided to buy the water outright from Poseidon for the next 30 years, spreading the high cost of desalinated water—two or three times higher than imported or recycled water—at rates that are expected to rise along with oil and gas based energy costs, among all 24 member agencies under the Authority’s umbrella rather than the original nine, with an option to buy the plant outright, but not ruling out subsidies after all.
All this for a company that had a junk bond rating that was recently pulled so that it currently has no bond rating at all, and is struggling to get state approval for a tax free $530 million bond—another taxpayer subsidy—needed to build the estimated $650 million plant.
The Carlsbad experience is prelude to what will happen with Poseidon’s nearly identical Huntington Beach plant, but it goes unmentioned in Fletcher’s article, even though that information might have helped readers to evaluate the merits of the poll and the desalination proposal.
Lack of Disclosure Everyone knows that any pollster can frame questions or polling data in order to get the desired answers, manipulate news coverage, and then, create public policy, as Joe Shaw, a Huntington Beach city council candidate and opponent of the desalination plant points out.
“I’m sure someone could design a poll that would get the exact opposite results. Did they ask whether or not Huntington Beach residents support Poseidon receiving hundreds of million dollars in taxpayer subsidies,” Shaw wonders.
Probably not, but we may never know the true nature of the questions because Fletcher and Poseidon officials refuse to divulge the information. Repeated requests by the Voice and R4RD president Merle Moshiri for polling data, including the exact text of questions asked, were ignored by Poseidon officials.
It’s understandable that Poseidon would try to block close scrutiny of its poll, but why didn’t Fletcher print the poll questions, which she says Poseidon officials gave her?
Fletcher told the Voice, by e-mail, that “I didn’t want to bog down an article with every detailed question. I chose instead to focus on the main question.”
But readers don’t know exactly what that question is because it too was left out of the Fletcher’s article.
When asked if she would share that information with the Voice, Fletcher refused, stating that her editor, Paul Danison, would not “allow us to share sourcing, research or notes with other media outlets or the public.”
But Fletcher gave Moshiri a somewhat different reason, also via e-mail. “Apparently, our company policy is we are only allowed to ‘share’ what is printed in our paper or on our Web site, unless given permission by the source (emphasis added).”
Whether she was following company policy or not, Fletcher clearly allowed herself to be manipulated by Poseidon.
But the list of polling questions wasn’t the only thing that Fletcher’s article was hiding from Register readers, who might assume that journalists are trained to consider the source of the information they are given.
Adam Probolsky Fletcher also failed to level with her readers about who really conducted the poll. Her article states that “Poseidon Resources conducted a phone survey of 402 register voters…” Even though the poll was paid for by Poseidon, however, it was actually conducted by Adam Probolsky, chairman and CEO of Probolsky Research.
Probolsky is a marketing consultant for Orange County Republicans, corporations and government bodies, including water agencies that are invariably in favor of desalination in general and Poseidon in particular.
Probolsky helps politicians and corporations to run victorious campaigns, and the company website boasts that “Adam D. Probolsky always works closely with our clients – on every project – to deliver the right results.”
The results of a 2008 water issues poll published on Pobolsky’s web site give an example of the kind of polling methodology that might have been disclosed if Fletcher and Poseidon had been more transparent.
Questions: A proposed water treatment plant would desalinate ocean water and turn it into drinking water for Orange County residents. This desalinated water would initially cost more than other drinking water sources. Please listen to two statements made by Orange County residents and tell me with which one you MOST agree:
STATEMENT 1: “I would pay a few dollars more on my monthly bill for high quality desalinated water that is locally-controlled, drought proof and reliable.”
STATEMENT 2: “We cannot afford higher water bills.”
In this case, 65.5 percent of 300 Orange County voters agreed with statement 1.If Probolsky’s current poll contains the same contrived and misleading slant of this poll, it’s easy to see how Poseidon could claim huge support for its Surf City desalination project.
Probolsky’s brother Brian is a member of the Moulton Niguel Water District, which is a member of CalDesal, a pro-desalination, pro-Poseidon lobby group started in March. Its growing membership roster also includes Laer Pearce of Shea Properties (Bolsa Chica/Parkside), 17 water agencies and RBF, a water resources engineer firm.
CalDesal’s draft mission statement reveals its pro corporate bias:
“It is the mission of CalDesal ot be an advocate at the political, policy and regulatory level for desalination as a vital new source of water for California. Our goal is to create a positive environment statewide for the acceptance of desalination and to reduce the impediments to its implementation.”
Another fact that Fletcher failed to mention in her article is that Adam Probolsky is also a “contributing columnist” for the Register, although he probably couldn’t have done a better job spinning Poseidon if he had written the article himself.
Poseidon’s Messenger As Poseidon’s messenger, Fletcher warns readers that “The State Water Resource Control Board this week released a report saying Northern California “should cut off 70 percent of its water supply to Southern California to protect delta fisheries.”
That’s a sobering thought, indeed, in a time of drought.
In the story’s next paragraph Poseidon V.P. Scott Maloni predicts that rising costs of imported water will cause residents to “increasingly look toward new locally controlled water supplies that offer enhanced reliability,” meaning, of course, that they will welcome Poseidon Resources into their community.
Huntington Beach receives most of its water from local ground wells, but cities in south Orange County rely heavily on imported water, much of it from the Sacramento Delta, which is greatly overstressed by diversions of its water to farms and suburbs throughout the state.
Lacking sufficient mitigation by conservation, a 70 percent decrease in Delta water exports to southern California would have severe effects on its residents. And Surf City voters certainly aren’t going to support any city council candidate who opposes construction of a desalination plant that would create 50 million gallons of fresh “drought free” water per day and save them from “environmental extremists.”
But the State Water Board’s Delta study did not suggest a 70 percent cutback in water exports to southern California. In fact, it didn’t suggest any policy changes regarding water allotment because its sole purpose was to make a scientific assessment of what it would take to restore Delta water flows to an ecologically sustainable level.
Any future water allotment changes would go through a separate and, no doubt, long public hearing process and regulators are not planning on choking off southern California’s water supply.
Unlike the Register, other newspapers, including the Contra Costa Times, got the story right.
Backlash Through Fletcher’s article, which uses bogus or hidden facts, Poseidon sends a clear message to Surf City’s residents, especially its 19 city council candidates in this election season: Public support for Poseidon is high and growing, so you should support the desalination plant too.
Ten of the 19 candidates had already declared their support for the corporate god of the sea long ago; but if Poseidon’s strategy helps keep them on board, the other nine candidates show no signs of repenting yet.
“Poseidon is doing what Poseidon always does, working hard to convince politicians and voters that public opinion makes this project inevitable,” according to candidate Blair Farley, who serves on the city’s planning commission.
“Whether people in Huntington Beach support desalination in general or this project specifically does not mean that it is a good project,” he concludes.
Nor does “disingenuous” reporting, adds Moshiri. “This was simply another attempt to deceive the public regarding the true costs of this ridiculous project, aided by column writers [who are] not interested in really informing the public. No wonder people are reading newspapers less.”
John Earl is the publisher and editor for the Surf City Voice and Poseidon Town. In the late 1980s, he covered local politics for the Huntington Beach News. In 2005, he was a founding member and first president of Residents for Responsible Desal, which he left in 2006 to become editor of the print newspaper, OC Voice.