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Photo by Keith MayPoseidon Resources Inc. says it has the solution to Orange County's chronic water shortage: a desalination plant that will run on electricity from the AES power plant in Huntington Beach. Despite the fact the city of Huntington Beach has yet to approve the project, local developers are already promising the Poseidon plant will produce millions of gallons of water each day to supply ever-growing South County neighborhoods.
"The desal[ination] project will share existing seawater intake and outfall facilities with the generating station," Poseidon's website states. "A number of Orange County retail water agencies connected to the Municipal Water District of Orange County are waiting for the project's [environmental] certification. Poseidon is currently discussing a firm sale of approximately half the output (25 million gallons per day) to the Santa Margarita Water District.
"When properly developed and permitted, desalination provides a safe, sustainable, environmentally friendly and drought-proof source of drinking water," Poseidon claims.
The key phrase? "Properly developed." And that's exactly what the Poseidon Seawater Desalination Project isn't, says Jan Vandersloot, a Newport Beach dermatologist and environmental activist.
Vandersloot is most famous for his activist role in convincing the Orange County Sanitation District to meet federal water-quality standards before dumping millions of gallons of wastewater 4.5 miles offshore in Huntington Beach. Now he has turned his sights on the Poseidon desalination project, which would pump 100 million gallons of water from the AES plant's cooling system each day—and which could make the already-contaminated water there even more unhealthy.
On the surface, the plan appears beautiful in its simplicity: each day, AES pumps through its cooling system 240 million gallons of ocean water and returns the water—now heated—to the ocean. Poseidon requires two things AES produces in abundance: heated water and power. According to Poseidon's proposal, the desalination plant would suck up 100 million gallons of the AES plant's wastewater each day. It would produce 50 million gallons of potable water daily and dump the remaining 50 million in the Pacific.
But there are several problems with that seemingly benign arrangement. A recent study by the California Energy Commission (CEC) found that AES wastewater contains a whopping one particle of bacteria for every 36 particles of water. Because AES flushes this water through a pipe that ends just 1,200 feet offshore and a mere seven feet beneath the surface, it's no surprise that CEC found that AES contributes 16 percent of the enterococci bacteria that ends up on the beach at Huntington.
That problem is exacerbated in the desalination process, which would actually concentrate the bacteria in AES's wastewater supply before dumping it in the ocean.
"The desalination plant takes water from the AES discharge pipe, concentrates it and discharges it," says Vandersloot. "If you have the AES plant putting out shit, and the Poseidon plant is next to it, it's still putting out shit. My contention is that the Poseidon plant will concentrate the shit, so it makes it worse."
Vandersloot opposes the Poseidon project but at the very least hopes city officials will require the desalination plant to pump its wastewater through the Orange County Sanitation District's (OCSD) nearby water-treatment facility. OCSD's wastewater pipe runs nearly five miles offshore to a depth of 200 feet. When it reaches the surface, OCSD wastewater clocks a water-to-bacteria ratio of 180,000:1.
Vandersloot has written letters urging the Huntington Beach Planning Commission to consider the CEC study, the results of which were ignored in Poseidon's draft environmental-impact report. "It would be a very poor decision to locate the Poseidon plant at that location because the AES plant is a dinosaur," he said. "It uses old technology, and it is a dirty plant. It has a lot of bacteria within the plant and is pushing it out to sea, close to shore. It is not being regulated or treated."
Poseidon is likely to face not only political and environmental hurdles, but financial challenges as well. On Oct. 31, Covanta Tampa Construction, owner of the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Project, filed for bankruptcy. The filing came when company officials realized the facility simply couldn't treat enough water to turn a profit. They found there that nature had turned against the plant: clams and mollusks attaching themselves to the plant's intake pipes produced more urine than the plant's filters could absorb.
According to the recent CEC study, the same problem already plagues AES. "The amount of ammonia in the system was higher than they could explain," Vandersloot said. "They finally found that [urine from] clams and mollusks in the pumps was causing the high ammonia. The CEC report says that the high level of ammonia comes from 500,000 organisms per square meter in the pipes. That's a huge amount of clams."