The Sacramento Bee: Dithering must end in California’s too-long desalination debate

Sac Bee Desal Opinion

A worker in this 2015 file photo climbs among some of the 2,000 pressure vessels used to convert seawater into fresh water through reverse osmosis in the desalination plant in Carlsbad. The developers of that plant have been awaiting approval for a second plant in Huntington Beach for nearly 20 years. Gregory Bull Associated Press


Last winter’s extreme storms notwithstanding, water remains scarce in this state. Between climate change and ongoing growth, California can’t afford to squander a single gallon. Yet in Orange County, a project that could increase water supply by 50 million potable gallons daily has been awaiting approval since 1998.

There are pros and cons aplenty to the $1 billion desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach by Poseidon Water. And in the nearly 20 years during which state and local authorities mulled it, all have been masticated thoroughly.

Like the plant Poseidon recently opened to the south in Carlsbad, the Huntington Beach facility would add a critical, if pricey, source of freshwater in drought years. Would it be a silver bullet? No. Would it pose some environmental risks? Yes.

Like the coastal power plant it would replace, it would be an oceanfront eyesore. Also it could hog energy, discharge brine and suck mass quantities of seawater, potentially endangering marine life.

On the other hand, oil well-studded Huntington Beach isn’t exactly Point Reyes, and the desalination plant would be smaller and less aesthetically offensive than the ugly smokestacks and boilers that occupy the site now.

Its operator, acquired in recent years by the publicly traded Brookfield Infrastructure Partners of Boston, has put forth many volumes of plans for mitigation. Poseidon says it will protect nearby wetlands, minimize energy consumption, make the plant carbon neutral, deal with the brine and filter intake to protect sea life.

Meanwhile, from a statewide perspective, it would ease demand on Northern California’s snowpack and rivers, relieve pressure on the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and help drought-proof the water supply for arid Southern California, where every drop counts.

All this and more has been analyzed and considered. In fact, over the years, as environmental regulations shifted and tightened, the plant’s operators have twice restarted the application process from scratch.

That’s fine; a project of this scope should get a hard look, and municipalities up and down the coast are watching with intense interest.

But two decades is a long time to still be looking. Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a fan-turned-consultant, told The Sacramento Bee editorial board at a recent meeting that, at one point, she had anticipated joking that the project was launched when Bill Clinton was in the White House and finished when Hillary Clinton was – well, you get the picture.

Now the Huntington Beach project – which President Donald Trump is said to support – has three final hurdles to clear, starting later this summer when the plant’s lease agreement comes up for renewal before the state Lands Commission. After that, the state Water Board has to sign off on an amended discharge permit, and then it comes before the California Coastal Commission. If there are no further delays, the plant should have a thumbs up or down by the first quarter of next year.

All things considered, we think it merits approval. Desalination has worked in arid places such as Israel, and why shouldn’t all options be on the table?

But at the very least the project deserves a decision. Let’s not dither for another 20 years.