Former Sen. Barbara Boxer hired to promote controversial desal project

Poseidon Water, which operates a large desal plant in Carlsbad, California, wants to put a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

HUNTINGTON BEACH, California – A private water company that wants to build a billion-dollar desalination plant in Huntington Beach has hired former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer to promote the controversial project of turning ocean water into drinking water. Environmentalists say Boxer – once dubbed the most liberal environmentalist in the Senate – has betrayed them.

Desalination is the process of turning salty ocean water into drinking water using what’s called reverse osmosis. The water can then be put in city pipes as tap water. It’s basically the same system used to create some bottled water you get at your local store, and it’s routinely used in such arid locations as Israel, Australia and South America.

Poseidon Water’s first big desal plant was built near Carlsbad in San Diego County 20 years ago; it’s the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The company has been working for years to build another one in Orange County, just south of the iconic Huntington Beach pier.

“We’re in the final phase of the permitting process. We anticipate that we’ll successfully obtain all the permits that we need to build the facility by the end of 2018,” said Poseidon Water’s vice president, Scott Maloni.

Photo by Roman Eugeniusz via Creative Commons

However, the Huntington Beach project has been met with several challenges and obstacles over the past decade, including from environmentalists who argue that desalination harms the ocean, seafloor and sea life.

The company says their design includes using pipes fitted with mesh screens the width of a dime or credit card to bring in the water and keep the sea life out so nothing gets harmed.

However, former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook and other environmentalists are concerned about such things as fish eggs and larva that will be killed when the water is pulled through the screens.

“A credit card is pretty thick still when you’re considering the kind marine life we’re talking about,” Cook said. “The phytoplankton, the plankton and the larva, all of that. And it can absolutely get through a credit card size screen. Remember the reverse-osmosis membrane is a death chamber for all marine life. It kills everything that gets sucked in. Most people think we need to conserve energy because producing energy puts a lot of carbon in the atmosphere of which the ocean is the biggest sink, and that’s one of the reasons it’s warming so dramatically. We have to have the ocean or we will not survive on this planet.”

Boxer defended her work as a consultant for Poseidon Water.

“I’m working on desal because I’ve always believed desal is critical in terms of the way we adapt to climate change,” she said. “It’s crucial, and I supported this plant as a senator years ago. So here we have our ocean – there it is as far as the eye can see. And if there are ways to take the salt out of it in an environmentally sensitive way and using the advances of technology, let’s do it. And if a private company is willing to pay for the billion dollars, let’s do it.

“And if we want to know if desal works, let’s look at Israel, for an example. And let’s look right in Carlsbad, for example, where we’re seeing millions of gallons a day of drinkable water.”

There are skeptics in Orange County, however.

Peer Swan is a director of the Irvine Ranch Water District Board (IRWD) and has served on the Metropolitan Water District Board in Los Angeles. Irvine Ranch is one of the agencies within the Orange County Water District to which Poseidon intends to sell water from its Huntington Beach plant.

“IRWD does not need the Poseidon plan,” Swan said. “We have probably the most reliable water supply in Orange County. It should be a choice program. Those who want it, get it. Those who don’t want it, don’t get it.

“People could be paying, especially in the higher tiers, quite a bit more for water if we have to take the Poseidon water. The Poseidon program gives you water every single day of every single month of every single year for 50 years, so you have to take that water. It’s a take or pay contract. So that water will displace water that’s half the cost.”

Maloni, the Poseidon vice president, said, “We believe, as proven in Carlsbad, that seawater desalination is the right investment. You have to look at the cost of desal over the full life of the contract. We believe the cost of purchasing desalination in lieu of imported water will save the ratepayers of Orange County tens of millions of dollars.”

Boxer said, “The one thing that gets me is, some of our opponents say, ‘Oh the water’s a little more expensive.’ Yes it’s a little more expensive. It’s not as expensive as they say, by the way, but the fact of the matter is try going and buying bottled water in the grocery store every day. It’s a social-justice issue. It’s an environmental-justice issue.”

To read more background, check out previous coverage from our partners at KPCC