Water Board Pushes Billion-Dollar Desal Plant But Refuses to Consider Cheaper Alternatives

Note: The Surf City Voice website was destroyed by hackers in December, 2019 and is under reconstruction. This story was first posted February 27, 2018. Part 1

By John Earl

Five members of the Orange County Water District Board of Directors (OCWD), with President Denis Bilodeau speaking for them (and presumably on behalf of the entire 10-member board) gave false and misleading information at a State Lands Commission (SLC) public hearing on Poseidon Resource’s proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination project, as recently reported by the Surf City Voice.

Director Stephen Sheldon at an OCWD water board meeting. Sheldon called requests for further study of the Poseidon project “Orwellian”. Photo: Surf City Voice

The hearing was held in Huntington Beach last October 19. The SLC approved an Environmental Impact Report for the project and extended Poseidon’s lease of state-owned beach-front land with minor changes until 2025.

Responding to questions by Commissioner Betty Yee, Bilodeau assured the commission that the board had fully considered less expensive alternatives to the proposed $1 billion project, about two-thirds of which would be funded by government subsidies through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and by the OCWD’s assumption of construction costs for a desalinated-water conveyance system, if it is approved by other state agencies and the OCWD.

But Bilodeau knowingly misled the SLC. The OCWD Board of Directors has not studied project alternatives despite promising for years to do so.

Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), agencies must study project alternatives to establish if there is a need for the project or not. Bilodeau falsely told the SLC that the OCWD board had fully considered those alternatives, which include:

The OCWD’s Long-Term Facilities Plan, which identifies potential future water management projects, lists some of those alternatives and others, including desalination.

The OCWD made the Poseidon desalination project its top priority in 2013 after 15 years of failed efforts by the company to convince member agencies of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) to pay for its more expensive desalinated water.

A pro-active coterie of Poseidon loyalists on the OCWD Board of Directors led by Cathy Green, Shawn Dewane, Stephen Sheldon, and Denis Bilodeau, has blocked every attempt since 2013 to study project alternatives. Every related staff report, every paid consultant’s project-analysis, and all Poseidon related committees pushed the project forward without considering its alternatives.

Based on figures provided by OCWD staff, those pro-Poseidon efforts cost OCWD ratepayers an estimated $783,073, $400,000 of which was on staff time (most of which came after 2013).

Those figures do not include money spent in the past five years on countless board and committee meetings, including secret and arguably illegal meetings with Poseidon representatives, in the form of directors’ stipends and benefits.

Since 2013, the Poseidon coterie has insidiously and relentlessly fought for the desalination project, saying “nothing is final” but doing everything in its power to make it final; it either ignores, redirects, or mocks any request by OCWD ratepayers or other Orange County water officials to study project alternatives. Other board members either go along quietly or are outvoted.

By refusing to seriously study project alternatives, the Poseidon coterie gives itself unlimited opportunities to propagandize for Poseidon and against its alternatives almost without rebuttal.

Director Green, for example,  overstates the District’s water needs to prove the need for the Poseidon project.

In 2013, Green tried to create a citizens advisory committee stacked with Poseidon supporters. After complaints from her Huntington Beach constituents, the OCWD board made a more diverse committee but restricted its duties to consideration of the provisions of a proposed term sheet (pre-contract) between Poseidon and OCWD—discussion of project alternatives was expressly prohibited.

Later, Green formed and operated an “ad hoc” desalination funding committee in secret for more than a year before it was publicly approved by the board, an apparent violation of California’s open meetings laws.

Director Dewane, who is also president of CalDesal (a non-profit that lobbies for the desalination industry, including the Poseidon project), often makes false claims about the cost of conservation compared to ocean desalination. Other board members do not challenge his false facts.

Director Stephen Sheldon is an Orange County developer and a former highly-paid Poseidon consultant. Like other members of the Poseidon coterie, he treats the Poseidon project as a fait accompli.

At a November 12, 2014, board meeting, Sheldon called a request by the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) for more time to study the Poseidon project and its alternatives an “Orwellian” attempt to delay.

When reminded at a July 22, 2015, board meeting by IRWD director Peer Swan and OCWD’s chief engineer, John Kennedy, that the board had voted to study project alternatives, Sheldon said he didn’t recall that.

“My recollection from our meetings is that we were looking for alternatives overall in what we are doing in water generation,” he said.

“Peer, I don’t recall saying we were going to present this alternative or that alternative or that in lieu of Poseidon,” he continued. “We are looking at water production all over in many different areas. So, I don’t necessarily agree to (sic) that conclusion as to the alternatives issue.”

Swan pointed out that there was citizen video-footage of a previous meeting in which the OCWD board did vote  7 – 3 to consider project alternatives.

“It gets into my mind as to what I was thinking of when I voted,” Sheldon cracked.

“I think you were sleeping,” Swan answered, in a pointed reference to Sheldon’s well-known habit of dozing off at meetings.

“I was napping that time,” Sheldon joked.

The nap continues, not just for Sheldon but for the entire OCWD Board of Directors.

Read Part 2

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