Proposed Southern California Desalination Plant Could Do More Harm Than Good

Today, the California Coastal Commission is holding a hearing on the proposed Brookfield-Poseidon desalination plant that would operate along the coast of Huntington Beach, California. This project, which would be situated next to a coastal power plant, was approved by Huntington Beach over a decade ago with the intent of converting seawater into drinking water.

While such a plant could supposedly help with the water deficit California currently faces, the proposed plant faces opposition for myriad reasons including harm to marine life and low-income communities of color. California Coastal Commission staff issued a report in late April recommending that the panel reject the proposed $1.4 billion plant that would process 50 million gallons per day. Last week on Friday, the Stop Poseidon Coalition, a collective of environmental justice, coastal and ocean conservation groups, submitted a petition with more than 12,500 signatures to the Commission panel opposing the proposed plant after also sharing this briefing binder.

The plant stands to harm low-income and tribal communities as well as communities of color by making drinking water less affordable and ultimately violating their human right to water, according to Corey Brown, an attorney at Resources Legacy Fund.

The proposed desalination plant site is in a low-lying area that is vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise (5.3 feet increase by 2030) and earthquakes. It is situated on a “brownfield” with toxicity levels akin to superfund sites. Not only does the toxic plume migrate within the water table, but disadvantaged communities living inland will receive toxic pollutants from the plant via the wind stream.

“All of these communities feel these [impacts] most — low income communities and small business owned by communities of color need this water,” said Scott Badenoch, an environmental justice attorney supporting Azul.

The desalination plant would be co-located with the Huntington Power Plant in an effort to share an intake pipeline as a cost-saving measure. However, this intake would entrain more than 100 million larvae each year, compromising the base of the ocean food chain and the conservation-oriented Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) surrounding the plant.

“This will have a far-reaching impact on California’s MPAs. [The desalination plant is] well within the Coastal Commission-defined Impact Zone and will impact connectivity between MPAs,” said Mandy Sackett, California policy coordinator at Surfrider Foundation, “Marine life have these refugia, but that will now be disrupted.”

While Poseidon has proposed installing wire mesh screens to reduce the amount of larvae caught in the intake, the regional water board has indicated that this would only prevent one percent of the larvae from entering. Poseidon could also implement a below-ground intake to reduce loss of marine life, but has not yet considered doing so.

Poseidon also operates another Southern California desalination plant in Carlsbad that has not met any of its mitigation requirements, despite beginning operations in 2015.

“With nine MPAs withing 25 miles of [the Huntington Beach] plant, we should not be putting this ‘killing machine’ there”, said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, “We shouldn’t be providing profit to a global behemoth. We should be protecting California’s Coast.”

The Carlsbad plant recently had to suspend operations due to red tides, that are becoming increasingly common as climate change progresses. Sackett suggests that the Huntington Beach plant would likely succumb to similar issues once operations launch.

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