Last Wednesday, the Orange County Water District (OCWD) Board of Directors voted 6-2 to adopt a new term sheet that amends Poseidon’s proposed desalination project in Huntington Beach. The new contract terms only go into effect, however, if Poseidon receives the permits necessary from the Regional Water Quality Control Board in the fourth quarter of this year, and the California Coastal Commission next year.
At 5:30 p.m., all the seats in the water district building were taken. Standing room was even scarce. “The meeting is going to be about four or five hours,” a man in a suit said. And he was right—the meeting was like a Coastal Commission hearing warm-up. Eighty people requested to speak during public comments, causing the board to cut everyone’s speaking time down to a minute, which sent attendees into fits of anger.
“It’s your job to stay here and listen to what the public has to say,” a woman said during the public comments. “That’s your job. Shame on you for cutting our time.”
An estimated 150 people were at the meeting. Most in attendance were Orange County residents in opposition to the controversial, 17-year project. John Kennedy, OCWD’s executive director of engineering and water resources, spent the first quarter of the meeting discussing the details of the new terms. You can read about the term changes in the last story we wrote about the project on June 6.
One major project amendment Kennedy pointed out is the increase in budget. Instead of being capped at $320,000, the budget to hire consultants to evaluate different aspects of the proposal is now $370,000.
As Kennedy presented a PowerPoint of the new terms, he incorporated a slide showing comments from the water producers with whom OCWD often meets. Kennedy emailed all 19 producers with four questions, in which only eight responded. Three producers declined to answer the questionnaire because they felt it was too narrow. One producer wrote, “It assumes project support!” Another producer said, “Not sure these are the right questions,” while another producer wrote: “The first question should be ‘is there an alternative to Poseidon?’.”
The public comments lasted an hour-and-a-half, and the majority of people expressed their disapproval of the project. Garry Brown, the president of Orange County Coastkeeper, and representatives from the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation spoke to the board about the environmental impacts of the project, the problems with Poseidon’s Carlsbad desal plant, implementing other water conservation strategies, and the fact it’s Poseidon’s technology that makes this project bad—not desal itself.
Steve Ray from the Banning Ranch Conservancy also spoke, comparing the relationship between Poseidon and OCWD to President Trump and Putin. “What does Poseidon have that makes OCWD not be able to say no?”
A recurring complaint by the public to the board was the fact there hasn’t been an alternatives analysis since the start of the project. Another interesting issue brought up by the public was that even cities not receiving Poseidon water will still have to pay increased water rates as a result of the project. “I live in the Cerritos/Artesia area,” said a young man named Josh. “I will not be getting water provided by the desal plant, however, I still have to pay for Poseidon through the Local Resources Program …”
Shots were fired once again at Shawn Dewayne, the director of OCWD, and other board members for not recusing themselves from voting on the project, ultimately implying and accusing members of the board of having personal interests in moving the project forward. (Dewayne specifically, as he’s reported to be Poseidon’s point man at OCWD.)
After the public comments came to a close, Dewayne addressed the room, explaining what (he believes) will happen if the project is not approved. “Your [water] rates are going to go up and scarcity is going to become a way of life for you,” he said. “Those who advocate on behalf of small businesses, what about the swimming pool lady? I appreciate your concern about her. I have a swimming pool and I enjoy it. Swimming pools are water dependent. The policies of the drought recently called for the elimination of the swimming pool industry in Orange County. In fact, certain water districts in their service areas would not permit new pool construction.”
Dewayne then went on to say gardening is also impacted by water. He asked how everyone would like a gardening restriction, and told everyone to imagine maintaining a desert landscape instead. “It will look like Sun City, Arizona,” he said. “I used to live in Arizona. I know what those cities look like. We can all have a cactus in our front yards.”
Dewayne’s fear-based argument is perhaps the most Orange County (read: unconvincing, hollow, surface level) rebuttal we’ve yet to hear in the pro-Poseidon discussion. Last year, OCWD gave a presentation on the quality of Poseidon water produced from the Carlsbad plant. They showed photos of rose bushes and plants that had been watered with the desalinated water and most of the plants looked brown, unhealthy and wilted. The reason is that Poseidon water is loaded with boron (because the ocean is full of boron and it can’t be filtered out), which is horrific for plant life (and probably us, too). So, gardening is going to be compromised with or without Poseidon water.
Despite the overwhelming opposition, OCWD voted to approve the term sheet. Board members Roger Yoh and Bruce Whitaker objected, James Vanderbilt abstained and Philip Anthony was absent. Poseidon’s Vice President Scott Maloni said in a statement that the adoption of the new term sheet was “just the latest indication that Orange County values the water supply reliability benefits provided by the Huntington Beach desalination project. We look forward to bringing closure to the permitting process early next year so we can finalize a water purchase agreement and bring this long-awaited project online.”
It’s as if Maloni didn’t hear more than half of 80 people express their dissatisfaction with Poseidon and the project. The desal plant still has to be approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Coastal Commission and finally by OCWD before the project’s construction can begin, says Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper.
“This isn’t over yet,” Hiemstra said. “We had a great turnout of people show up. If anything, it was great practice for the future hearings and meetings that are to come. We’re ready to keep fighting this.”