Sept. 7 was poised to go down as one of the most important moments in Orange County's recent environmental history. The California Coastal Commission was expected to vote that day on the future of Banning Ranch, one of the county's last undeveloped stretches of coastal land in Newport Beach. Two days later, the agency's board of directors would rule on whether to give a fast-tracked permit to allow a controversial desalination plant to go forward in Huntington Beach.
Last week, however, Poseidon Water, the company hoping to build the plant, decided to postpone the hearing for 90 days. Instead of a simple yes-or-no vote by the Coastal Commission, the project must now survive a rigorous review by other two agencies: the State Lands Commission and State Water Resources Control Board. Although Poseidon is remaining tight-lipped about the delay—the company declined several interview requests for this story—Coastal Commission board members were apparently expressing uncertainty about issuing a permit for the project.
"The three agencies need to look at this comprehensively, and that's what the problem was before," says Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper. Although Poseidon received a permit from the State Lands Commission four years ago, Hiemstra argues that the desal plant was a much different project back then. "What's going to happen—and what everyone wants to happen—is these boards are going to look at the current desalination proposal, which is different than it was in the past."
According to Noaki Schwartz, the Coastal Commission's information officer, Poseidon's postponement is the maximum allowed under the state's Permit Streamlining Act. "The extension was meant to allow a little more time for Poseidon to decide whether it will withdraw and resubmit its coastal development permit application so that the Commission doesn't have to act by December on a proposed project that has not yet been reviewed by the Regional Board and State Lands Commission," Schwartz says. "We asked Poseidon to consider withdrawing and resubmitting to allow the Commission to have the benefit of those agencies' reviews."
While the challenges facing Poseidon seem daunting, the company is great at one thing: political campaigning. One of the Coastal Commission's earlier stated concerns was that people of color were being left out of the decision-making process. Not long after that issue was expressed, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) gave its support for the desalination plant, a bizarrely timed move that immediately caused an uproar among environmentalists.
"The reality is that water isn't about environmental justice," says Hiemstra. "In fact, the areas in OC with the highest Latino populations, like Santa Ana, use the least amount of water. Latinos are actually one of the groups that are the best at conserving water in the county. These cities with high Latino populations are not the places that need the most water—but if the desal plant passes, their price [for] water is going to go up along with everyone else's."
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When asked if Hiemstra knew why LULAC supported the project, he said that members of LULAC have refused to speak with anyone at Coastkeeper about the issue. "We obviously can't say what that means," Hiemstra says, "but it doesn't seem good that they won't talk to us about it."
In a July 15 editorial published by the Orange County Register, Dave Rodriguez, LULAC's California state director, claimed to speak on behalf of the nearly 1 million Latinos living in OC. He called the desal project "not only a matter of environmental justice, but of civil rights as well," noting that "Latino voices, and other voices of color, have been conspicuously absent from the dialogue over the need to build this plant and similar plants elsewhere on the California coast."
However, Hiemstra points out the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) has long been voicing the exact concerns Rodriguez claimed hadn't been raised. (LULAC is not connected to EJCW.)
Longtime opponents of Poseidon hope the company's seemingly cynical political machinations and last-minute procedural delays won't work in its favor when the Coastal Commission finally does vote on the project. "We view this postponement as a positive step toward ensuring this project gets the appropriate environmental review it deserves consistent with current law," says Garry Brown, executive director of Coastkeeper. "On top of all the environmental, economic and energy impacts this plant would have on Orange County, there has been no proven need for this water."