Note: The Surf City Voice website was destroyed by hackers in December, 2019 and is under reconstruction. This story was first posted July 18, 2018.
By John Earl
Surf City Voice
MWDOC Assistant Manager, Karl Seckel. Photo: Surf City Voice
For years, members of the Orange County Water District’s Board of Directors (OCWD BOD) has lied to the public and state officials about establishing the need for a $1 billion ocean desalination plant that they want Poseidon Resources to build and operate in Huntington Beach.
But the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) is about to undo that lie.
First, some background.
Establishing a legally defined need for the project entails studying its alternatives, which includes cost and efficiency comparisons, something that the OCWD BOD voted to do three years ago.
Besides meeting the legal requirements for project approval, studying alternatives to a $1 billion project seems to be a prudent, even eclectic move by elected officials whose job is to protect taxpayers and ratepayers.
Back on May 14, 2015, the OCWD BOD voted 7 – 3 to approve a term sheet (pre-contract) with Poseidon and pay consultants $230,000 to study how to distribute the 56,000 AF of Poseidon’s desalinated water the district would have to take, regardless of need or far cheaper alternatives, for 30 years. That money was also supposed to go toward studying “alternative supplies and financial assistance.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars more in consulting fees and three years later, and after spending over $1 million total to “investigate” the Poseidon project since 2010 (mostly since 2013), OCWD planners and board members still have no idea how the Poseidon water would be distributed.
More important, staff and board members have still not studied the Poseidon alternatives, at all.
In fact, as reported exclusively in recent Surf City Voice stories, certain members of the OCWD BOD have actively blocked every attempt by staff or other board members to live up to the District’s legal obligation to fulfill its promise to study those alternatives.
Instead of studying alternatives, board members and staff spent the last three years colluding with Poseidon in a series of secret and arguably illegal meetings (also exclusively reported in the Surf City Voice) designed to push the project forward with a revised and renegotiated term sheet, which is up for a vote tonight (Wednesday, July 18, 5:30 pm).
Understandably, OCWD would rather tout the relatively minor changes in the term sheet than talk about the shameful and probably illegal manner by which it was created—and Orange County’s mainstream news outlet and longtime Poseidon prop, the OC Register, has happily obliged.
OCWD’s Chief Engineer, John Kennedy, told the SCV in a previous interview that staff would study the Poseidon alternatives if given the go-ahead by the board, despite his own promises long ago at board meetings to do so.
When it was pointed out that the OCWD BOD did vote to study alternatives, Kennedy said, “I will have to go back and read that [the minutes]. But if a board member sits up there and says, ‘I want to know what the alternatives to this [are], if anything, we would have to write a report and give that.”
The OCWD BOD’s ongoing tactic has been to say that they need to study the Poseidon project more before they can study its alternatives.
“That’s true,” Kennedy said, “because until we figure out the distribution plan we don’t know the final cost.” When that is known, he added, “it would be very logical for someone to say, ‘Okay, what are alternatives to this?’”
But OCWD Director Roger Yoh challenged that approach at a November 19, 2014 board meeting after Director Steve Sheldon, a former Poseidon consultant, said that allowing more time to study the project or its alternatives was “just Orwellian.”
“Steve, usually we decide what we want to do before we proceed to design,” Yoh advised. “We don’t design it and then shelve it and waste all that time and effort.”
But MWDOC is about to take up some of the slack left by OCWD with its own study of project alternatives, and it could be a game changer for the Poseidon project.
If nothing else, the study should put pressure on the OCWD BOD to delay the project until MWDOC’s study is completed or until it has conducted its own study as promised; it should, but based on past practice it probably won’t.
Heading up the study is MWDOC’s Assistant General Manager, Karl Seckel, who told the SCV that the intended purpose of the comparative study is to examine the need for the Poseidon project.
“I think a big point to make with OCWD is that nobody has examined the ‘need’ for the project,” Seckel told the SCV.
In the past, MWDOC has officially stated that Poseidon is just one of a number of possible water reliability projects, without giving it preference over the alternatives.
In a 2017 letter to the State Lands Commission, for example, MWDOC wrote that “Additional water supply projects are necessary but no one project is absolutely essential to meet reliability goals for southern California and Orange County.”
The MWDOC study will include comparative cost estimates for Poseidon and alternative projects.
Included in that will be cost estimates for delivering Poseidon water to north and south Orange County, an issue that OCWD has struggled with for years in secret negotiations with Poseidon and in reports to the OCWD BOD.
Poseidon opponents were happy to learn about the study but expressed outraged that OCWD hadn’t already conducted one of its own.
“It’s about time someone did an alternative analysis,” Residents for Responsible Desalination spokesperson Joe Geever told the SCV. “OCWD intentionally avoided this important step.”
Geever pointed out that the OCWD BOD appointed a citizens advisory board to review the first Poseidon term sheet but it was precluded by the board from talking about project alternatives.
“It is nothing short of dereliction of duty for the OCWD Board to consider a term sheet for a ‘take or pay’ contract for the most expensive option without being able to answer the basic question: ‘compared to what?’
Reached by the SCV late today, Poseidon VP Scott Maloni said that he isn’t for or against the MWDOC study (even though in the past he has publicly called for a narrower study that as he defined it would exclude anything but desalination).
“It’s just a study,” he said. “As MWDOC will attest, the study doesn’t contemplate policy. Future projections of water demand are irrelevant because desalination isn’t for growth. [It is a] One for one replacement of existing supplies.”
Maloni’s assertion about one for one replacement is true, which demands an answer to why ratepayers should pay three times as much for desalinated water that isn’t adding to their supplies.
Seckel said that MWDOC will complete the study by the end of July.
Alternatives to be Studied by MWDOC
Juan Watershed Project
Ranch Water Bank
Interconnection Project expansion (pending completion of study with
Pump-in to the EOCF#2
to purchase MET Water
Base assumptions are that OCWD will continue investments in:
• WUE (Water Use Efficiency = conservation)
• Storm capture
Update: The completed MWDOC reliability study put Poseidon in last place among all the alternative water sources studied. You can read a summary of it here and the entire report here.