A $1-billion desalination plant might be coming to Huntington Beach, but it will test California's environmental rules

Poseidon Water hopes to help quench Orange County’s thirst, but first the company’s proposed desalination project must slake a thirst of its own. 

That’s why Poseidon has long eyed a coastal power plant that has, for more than a half-century, sucked up seawater to cool its massive generators. 

The AES Huntington Beach Generating Station’s giant smokestacks and steam boilers will be gone in a few years, replaced under state orders by a smaller plant that uses air, rather than the ocean, to keep from overheating.

But if Poseidon has its way, the $1-billion desalter it wants to build next door will simply take over use of the power station’s old intake pipe, which reaches roughly a quarter-mile into the ocean and is big enough for a tractor-trailer to drive through.

Whether regulators allow Poseidon to do that will be the first major test of new state rules designed to minimize desalination’s toll on the barely visible organisms that give life to the sea — but would perish just as surely in the guts of a water purification plant as they do in the power station.  

It will also measure the political influence of a company that over the years has spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying and campaign contributions while seeking approval to build the nation’s two largest sea-to-drinking-water operations on Southern California shores.

Susan McCabe, one of the state’s top coastal lobbyists, has long represented Poseidon, which was acquired last year by Brookfield Infrastructure Partners of Boston, a publicly traded company that owns and operates infrastructure facilities on four continents. 

According to commission filings, McCabe has privately discussed the Huntington Beach proposal with many of the state coastal commissioners who will — along with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board — determine its fate.  

Poseidon also hired Manatt, Phelps & Phillips as legal counsel a few years ago — about the same time that Kathleen Brown joined the law firm as a partner overseeing government and regulatory work. A former state treasurer, Brown is Gov. Jerry Brown’s sister. She is listed as a Poseidon representative on a 2015 California Coastal Commission filing.

Records from the California secretary of state’s office show that since 2000, the company has spent roughly $1.3 million lobbying the State Water Resources Control Board and the state Legislature on desalination matters. It contributed another $324,000 to state and local political action committees and candidates.

Among Poseidon’s beneficiaries is Jerry Brown, who received a total of $38,500 for his gubernatorial, attorney general and ballot-measure campaigns. The governor appoints all members of the state and regional water boards as well as four coastal commissioners.

Poseidon has donated a total of $8,900 to Democratic state Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego, who appointed two coastal commissioners while Assembly speaker in 2014-2015.

The company gave $1,000 to state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which also appoints commissioners.

The Huntington Beach project is not in either of their districts. But late last year — when Poseidon was pushing to go before the Coastal Commission in 2016 — both legislative leaders wrote official, similarly worded letters to commission Chairman Steve Kinsey backing the proposal.

Poseidon boasted of the support in a news release. And to make sure Charles Lester, who was then the commission’s executive director, didn’t miss Atkins’ letter, a commission staffer emailed him and others reviewing the proposal a copy with a subject line that read: “Speaker of Assembly letter supporting desal project.” (The Times obtained the email under a Public Records Act request.) 

De León’s office said in a statement that the Senate leader “was pleased to join a broad and diverse group of business and labor organizations, elected officials and environmental leaders in supporting this project as a safe, economically-sound solution to historic drought conditions. Serving on Rules Committee is not and should not be a disqualification from taking positions on issues of critical regional importance.”  

In an interview, Atkins said she did not personally discuss the Poseidon proposal with coastal commissioners and based her support of the Huntington Beach project on San Diego County’s success in tapping the sea for drinking water.

“My concern is with other parts of the state being able to do what we’ve done in San Diego,” said Atkins, who also backed a Poseidon project in Carlsbad

In December 2015, that northern San Diego County plant started producing 50 million gallons a day of purified seawater. Under the new state requirements, however, the similarly sized Huntington Beach project will face a higher hurdle when it goes before the regional board and Coastal Commission next year.

Critics also question whether it is really needed in an area that has more water sources than the San Diego region.

For all of desalination’s reputation as an inexhaustible, drought-proof supply of H2O in chronically water-stressed California, the state hasn’t rushed to build coastal desalters for several reasons: They gobble energy, harm the marine environment and produce some of the most expensive drinking water available, most experts who study such issues say. 

The rules adopted last year by the state water board focus on two areas of ecological concern: how desalination plants pull seawater — rich with massive quantities of algae, plankton, fish eggs and larvae — from the Pacific, and how they dispose of the brine — twice as salty as the ocean — left over from the desalination process.

Citing damage to the marine food chain, the board barred the type of open-pipe intakes Poseidon proposes for Huntington Beach — the same method used at many big ocean desalters around the world.

Instead, the board directed desalination plants to install wells — offshore or on the beach — or another type of subsurface intake that the state says would naturally filter out marine organisms.  

But there is a loophole, which Poseidon is trying mightily to swim through: If regulators find those methods aren’t feasible for technical or economic reasons, they can approve open-ocean pipes on a case-by-case basis.

“This is going to be the test,” said Joe Geever, a former program manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal protection group.   

With more than a dozen seawater desalination operations proposed along the coast, allowing Huntington Beach to use the old power plant pipe “would just throw open the doors to open-ocean intakes,” Geever argued.   

When Poseidon first proposed the Huntington Beach and Carlsbad projects in 1998, the company had a simple strategy: build next to existing power stations so the desalters could tap the power plants’ cooling discharges for source water and brine dilution. That would save infrastructure costs and, by avoiding the need for new intakes, lessen environmental concerns.

But in the ensuing years, pressure grew in California to end ocean cooling by coastal power stations that were swallowing billions of gallons of seawater a day, killing an average of several million fish and more than 19 billion fish larvae annually, according to state estimates.

One intake pipe off the Los Angeles coast even sucked in a scuba diver, who managed to survive.

In 2010, the state water board ordered California’s 19 seaside energy plants to phase out what is known as once-through-cooling. Six have done so. AES Southland, which owns the Huntington Beach station, has until 2020 to replace its hulking 1950s complex with a more efficient, air-cooled generating facility.

That means there will be no more cooling water for Poseidon to tap.

So the company wants to use AES’ original intake pipe to draw 106 million gallons a day from the ocean. Then, after the seawater is scrubbed by energy-intensive reverse osmosis filtration, 50 million gallons a day of leftover brine would be poured back into the Pacific using the power plant’s old, offshore discharge pipe.

In essence, opponents say, Poseidon wants California to let the budding desalination industry do what the state is forcing the energy industry — at a cost of billions of dollars — to stop doing.

“This is using a pipe from the 1960s, and the state board worked long and hard to force the power industry to stop using it,” said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, an environmental group. “Poseidon has known this is coming forever. They deliberately and stubbornly did not adjust their plan.” 

In 2013, the Coastal Commission staff recommended approval of the Huntington Beach proposal with a condition the company hated: Instead of using the power station’s intake pipe, Poseidon would have to build an offshore, subsurface intake called an infiltration gallery.

Under that design — in use at only one, much smaller plant in Japan — contractors would excavate about 25 acres of the offshore seabed and install a grid of perforated collection pipes beneath layers of sand and gravel. Seawater, but not marine organisms, would seep through the sand, supplying a main pipe connected to the desalination complex.

Poseidon fought the recommendation, echoing the power industry’s arguments that the toll of open-ocean intakes is negligible compared with the teeming microscopic life that populates coastal waters.

It further argued that such a system had never been used on a large scale, would require years of disruptive offshore construction next to a popular state beach and would kill the project with ballooning costs.

 

Last year, an independent science panel convened by the Coastal Commission partly agreed. The advisory group concluded that while it was technically possible to build an offshore infiltration gallery at Huntington Beach, doing so would add at least $1 billion to project costs and make the product water so expensive nobody would buy it.

Poseidon, for its part, has agreed to install fine-mesh screens to keep fish out of the intake pipe. It also says it will attach diffusing equipment to the end of the outfall to prevent the dense brine effluent from falling to the ocean floor in a deadly mass.

Coastal Commission scientists say an open intake at that location would slurp up plankton, fish larvae and other organisms floating within 50 miles, including from state-designated marine protected areas. The amount would vary, ranging from less than 1% for some species to as much as 9% for others.

“You’re reducing the amount of food” in the system and hurting biological productivity, said Tom Luster, a senior environmental scientist at the commission.

Another potential stumbling block for Poseidon is the cost of the desalinated water, which the advisory panel puts at about $1,900 an acre-foot with open-pipe intakes — roughly twice the current price of treated imported water. (An acre-foot is typically enough to supply two households for a year.)

If subsurface intakes are required, the panel concluded the acre-foot price would rocket up nearly 80%.

“It would definitely make the project much too costly, and we would not participate at that point,” said Michael Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District, which last year approved a nonbinding agreement with Poseidon to buy the water, most of which the agency would probably use to recharge the regional aquifer.

Meanwhile, one of Markus’ biggest customers is questioning whether the region needs the Poseidon supplies at either price.

Conservation is driving down demand at the same time there are plans to expand Orange County’s long-standing program of replenishing the groundwater basin with highly treated wastewater.

“You can stack up some really easy projects that are being contemplated … and all of a sudden we don’t see a need for this project at all,” said Paul Cook, general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District.

Still, the Pacific beckons. “We’ve always said we feel seawater desalination would become a part of anyone’s water portfolio,” Markus said.

bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Twitter: @boxall

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