As water runs out in California, commission rejects $1.4 billion desalination plant

Eleven members of the California Coastal Commission voted against the facility, which water treatment developer Poseidon Water has been trying to build for decades.

Poseidon said the plant would be able to produce up to 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, helping to make the region more drought resistant.

The commission, which is tasked with ‘protecting and enhancing’ the state’s vast coastline, heard public comment on the project throughout Thursday, with a majority of speakers attending. are opposed. Others who worried about a lack of water resources in the future argued that, where possible, additional water resources should be developed.

Poseidon released a statement after the vote thanking Governor Gavin Newsom for his support and reiterating his belief that the plant would be an important tool in maintaining the state’s water supply.

“It wasn’t the decision we were hoping for today,” said Poseidon communications director Jessica Jones. “California continues to face a distressing drought with no end in sight. … Every day we see new calls for conservation as reservoir levels drop to dangerous levels. We strongly believe that this proposed Desalination would have created a long-lasting drought tolerant water source for Orange County, just as it has for San Diego County.”

But opponents of desalination argue that cheaper and less harmful conservation tactics should be the first resort.

The commission is appointed or selected by state legislators and the governor. Ahead of the vote, its staff spoke out against the facility, pointing in part to desalination’s incredible energy consumption, its impacts on marine life, projected sea level rise and the cost of water. resulting water itself, with this cost passed on to customers. .

Commission staff acknowledged in the report that its findings do not mean the project is “unapprovable”, nor that it is completely against desalination, writing: “Staff recognize the need to develop new sources of reliable water supply in Southern California, and believes that well-planned and well-located desalination facilities will likely play a role in providing those supplies.”

Desalination works by separating water molecules from salty seawater through reverse osmosis. The remaining high salinity brine is returned to the ocean.

A plant of this scale – the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County – is already in operation. Poseidon began operating this facility in late 2015, selling all of its production to the San Diego County Water Authority under a 30-year contract.

Scientists reported earlier this year that the West’s current mega-drought is the worst in at least 1,200 years. Southern Californians are already experiencing unprecedented water restrictions ahead of summer.

Newsom expressed support for the plant’s construction, noting California’s prolonged droughts and difficult water supply. He recently told the Bay Area News Group editorial board, “What more do you need to prove that you need more tools in the toolkit than what we have known? Seven of the past 10 years have had severe droughts.

But those who oppose the desalination plant argue that there are other ways to tackle the drought.

California's two largest reservoirs are already at 'extremely low levels' and the dry season is just beginning

On its website dedicated to fighting the Huntington Beach plant, the non-profit Surfrider Foundation says the water the project would provide is not needed, calling the potential plant a “waste of money”. .

In fact, research by the Pacific Institute, a water-focused think tank, found that California could dramatically reduce its urban water use by 30-48% with existing and advanced technologies. In its recent report, the institute argued that “opportunities for water efficiency can be found statewide, but are highest in the South Coast hydrologic region.” He pointed to solutions that cost very little compared to desalination, including increasing wastewater recycling and stormwater capture – with around two-thirds of the region’s potential water savings coming from the residential sector. .

“Seawater desalination is one of the most expensive water supply options,” Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, told CNN. “From a cost perspective, from an environmental perspective, from an energy perspective, doing those other alternatives first makes the most sense for California.”

CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.

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