California officials are set to decide the fate of a controversial desalination plant planned along its southern coast, in a vote that comes as the American west battles an increasingly perilous drought.
Water use in California jumped 19% in March, amid one of the driest months on record. After more than a decade of debate, the California Coastal Commission will finally vote Thursday on a proposed $1.4 billion desalination plant in Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles.
As the west gets hotter and drier, the state and others in its vicinity are seeing water supplies become scarce. California is now facing its third straight year of crippling drought, with shortages leading to tight restrictions. Rising heat also means more water is needed to sustain people, ecosystems and the state’s thirsty agricultural sector.
Desalination plants, which convert seawater into drinking water, have long been seen as a possible solution as residents, developers and policymakers seek to capture water crashing against California’s shores.
The Huntington Beach plant has prominent backers, including the state’s governor, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Chamber of Commerce, and a host of other state and local officials. But experts say siphoning water from the sea is not a simple response to a complex and emerging crisis.
Desalination plants require large amounts of energy to turn salt water into fresh water and have a significant impact on marine life. Critics of the Huntington Beach project have also argued that for all its costs, the plant would not make water more accessible or affordable for Californians who need it most.
“Desalination is intuitively appealing to the person down the street or your average decision-maker,” said Dr. Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. Angeles. “But in this case, it will make the water rich, richer.
If approved, the Huntington Beach plant would be the 13th in California and one of the largest in the country. The facility proposed by project development company Poseidon Water would pump around 106 million gallons (401 million liters) of seawater every day, converting it into around 50 million gallons of drinking water. What remains – a thick salty brine – would be released into the ocean. If approved, the plant is expected to be built as early as 2023 and could be operational three years later.
Poseidon says the project will impact lower water levels statewide, although water is only supplied locally in Orange County. “[The region] will not draw water from the Colorado River or northern California, which means communities to the east and north will be able to benefit from this project,” said company spokeswoman Jessica Jones.
“It really has an impact on the whole West. With the drought situation we find ourselves in and which we will continue to face for years and years, it is so important that we turn to new supplies,” she said.
Along with a new water source, proponents of the project say it will be a financial boon to the area, bringing billions in revenue to Orange County and thousands of jobs. The company has pledged to buy carbon offsets and invest in efforts like reforestation credits to counter energy consumption, which Jones says will also be provided by renewables.
Skeptics, however, questioned the company’s commitment – and ability – to mitigate the project’s environmental impact that experts predicted. Along with seawater, desalination plants suck small creatures into the system. Although the company will use 1 millimeter mesh screens to limit the impact on animals, Coast Commission scientists reviewing the proposal believe the plant would still kill creatures such as fish larvae and plankton, “resulting in substantial losses of productivity of the marine ecosystem”.
Critics have also raised concerns about the location of the plant. Concentrated in an industrial development area, the facility would be located on a partially remediated Superfund site, near a sewage treatment plant, a former oil tank farm and what was once a landfill. Construction could spread contaminants from these sources into the surrounding area disadvantaged communities being blown east by coastal winds, critics warn.
Beyond those concerns, some researchers have warned that the project will not benefit those most affected by California’s water problems. Pierce, the UCLA professor, and a team of researchers studied the proposal in 2019. They concluded that the plant is located in an area of the state that does not suffer from reliable, high-quality water. , but the project would make drinking water less affordable. for disadvantaged households in Orange County.
“The developers have vaguely asserted that there will be equity benefits from this plant, but have provided no evidence of what this means,” he added. Instead, according to his team’s research, the high cost of the project would increase overall water prices in the region, hurting those who already have the hardest time paying their water bills.
Jones, the Poseidon spokesman, said if the project could drive up water rates, a fixed local rate could become more affordable than other sources in the dry decades ahead.
The California Coastal Commission, however, estimates the cost of the project to low-income Orange County residents would be significant. The water rate hikes “would disproportionately impact millions of low-income residents throughout the Orange County Water District service area, the majority of whom are people of color,” the agency wrote. committee in its report.
“We already know this thing isn’t going to make water cheaper and it’s not even reliable,” said Andrea León-Grossmann, director of climate action at Azul, a grassroots organization that works with Latin American communities to protect the coast from industrialization, noting that previous plants have produced less water than promised and may be compromised by oil spills, red tides and natural disasters. As part of the coalition against Poseidon, Azul and others submitted a 153-page report outlining the issues to the Coastal Commission.
Along with higher costs, León-Grossmann said his organization was concerned about emissions from factories polluting areas that already face large disparities; increase in dead zones or areas of the ocean where plants and animals are unable to survive and perish in large numbers; and threats from sea level rise, tsunamis and earthquakes, all of which could put the plant – and those who live nearby – in greater danger.
“We need more tools”
California Governor Gavin Newsom urged the commission to greenlight the project despite criticism, arguing that the drought emergency requires urgent responses.
“This administration is committed to ensuring the sustainability of California’s water supply with a comprehensive strategy, and that includes desalination,” a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement. “The Governor has supported this project for years and has made it clear that not approving this project would be a setback, while encouraging accountability and environmental justice measures. California regions must continue to innovate on local projects as climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.
Last month, Newsom was even more blunt when he spoke about the desalination project with the editorial board of the Bay Area News Group, calling a vote against a “big mistake.”
“We need more tools in the damn toolkit,” he said, adding, “Be tough. Be fair though. Don’t be ideological.
Pierce argued that he “would make a big distinction between this particular plant and every desalination conversation elsewhere in California.”
“This is an emergency supply for those who want to continue using the water as we have,” he said.
He argued that Orange County residents would benefit more from increased investment in recycling and reclaiming stormwater into groundwater than from the plant.
León-Grossmann also said there are still plenty of other options on the table.
“We continue to flush toilets with clean water,” she said, adding that building codes and modernization could make homes and businesses more water efficient. “Just plugging the leaks could create more water than the desalination plant can create.”
Desalination should not be seen as the simple solution, but rather as the last resort, she argued.
“It’s just not necessary,” León-Grossmann said. “We don’t say never – we just say no now.”