Last night Poseidon Resources Inc. inched one step closer to its dream of building a nearly $1- billion desalination facility on the shores of Huntington Beach. In an 8-0 decision (with two members absent), Orange County Water District (OCWD) Board of Directors voted unanimously to enter into a confidentiality agreement with the Connecticut-based company for the purposes of studying the economic feasibility of its plan. Though the project is still not assured, the board will consider a number of possibilities including an agreement to purchase 50 million gallons of water per day from the yet-to-be built plant as well as issue the debt for its construction.
During public comments prior to the vote,18 people spoke for and against the Poseidon adventure with criticism voiced mostly by residents and support coming from local politicians such as Anaheim councilmember Kris Murray and Mesa Water Director James Atkinson. Murray supported the project as a reliable, drought proof source of water.
Providing a silly, if a tad naive moment to the bland water talk, Huntington Beach mayor pro-tem Matt Harper expressed his support for Poseidon by invoking the memory of Ricky the Raindrop, a cartoon who taught school kids in the 80's about the delicate water cycle. But the most laughable public comment came courtesy of Megan Rodriguez speaking on behalf of the Orange County Taxpayers Association who said the project, estimated to provide as little as 8 percent of the county's water and possibly benefit from state subsidies, would be good for taxpayers.
"Before long desalination will be less expensive and taxpayers will save millions," she gushed.
Rodriguez's opinion may have been bolstered by a OCWD staff report issued last week which used numerous assumptions to conclude that desal would eventually be less costly than imported water. However, she didn't mention the part of the report explaining that any projections beyond five years, "should be viewed skeptically."
According to the OC Tax website, the group's purpose is to "represent taxpayers on governmental tax and spending policy issues." The site also lists Poseidon VP Scott Maloni among its 2012 board of directors.
But the evening wasn't giggles and circle jerking.
Former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, a long-time critic of the project, likened Poseidon to a group of predators who prey on greedy politicians. She urged the board to adopt a watch-and-wait position as Poseidon currently builds a similar desal plant in Carlsbad.
"What's the rush," asked Cook. "Let's watch San Diego and learn from their mistakes. "
The former mayor blasted an apparent lack of county agencies interested in purchasing Poseidon water, noting that the only group to publicly do so thus far has been the Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD). During his time with the SMWD, former director Roger Faubel simultaneously served as a paid Poseidon consultant and may have violated conflict-of-interest laws by voting on issues involving the company, (Faubel could be seen sitting next to Maloni during last night's meeting.)
Though the OCWD board's decision was unanimous, a couple members expressed hesitation before casting their votes. Director Bruce Whitaker was particularly concerned with a proposed expenditure of $100,000 to assist staff with a review of Poseidon's confidential information. He voted in favor of the item after it was decided not to spend any money until district staffers meet further with Poseidon.
"It would represent a poor investment from my standpoint," Whitaker said.
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Director Kathryn Barr discussed an alternate plan being floated that would involve OCWD purchasing Poseidon water and selling it to South County customers.
"We don't serve water to south Orange County except in emergencies," Barr said. "There would have to be several changes to our district in order to serve south O.C."
In addition to entering into a confidentiality agreement with Poseidon, OCWD voted to establish a citizens' committee to advise the board on the project. It's unclear how long OCWD will take to conduct its study, but in a recent phone interview with the Weekly, General Manager Michael Markus said there was no rush and the process could take months. In the meantime, Poseidon is waiting for final permit approval from the California Coastal Commission. That decision is expected to be handed down sometime this fall.