Desalination Project Debate Unresolved

Times Staff Writer

A decision on a $250-million desalination plant proposed in Huntington Beach was still being debated late Monday as the City Council wrangled over the plant's environmental review.

Poseidon Resources, a company based in Connecticut, wants to build the facility next to the AES generating station on Pacific Coast Highway, where it would use the power plant's water intake and discharge system.

The plant would produce up to 50 million gallons of fresh water daily, making it the largest plant of its type in the nation.

Critics of the plant asked the City Council on Monday to postpone a decision until more environmental study can be done.

"I'm not sure why we need more water," said Fred Galluccio, a physician who has lived near the AES power plant for 15 years. "We haven't done what we need to do with conservation. I feel very uncomfortable with this."

Poseidon officials say that they have a potential customer for half of the water and believe that they can sell the rest as water prices rise and the state is forced to reduce its reliance on the Colorado River.

Opponents worry that the private project is not economically feasible and could further damage the waters off Huntington Beach, which for years have been plagued with high levels of bacteria. They question whether a public resource -- ocean water -- should be used for private gain.

If the city accepts the proposal -- now running about a year behind schedule -- other regulatory agencies must also give their approvals. They include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Coastal Commission and the state Department of Health Services.

The California Energy Commission has recommended that the city reject the Poseidon project because, they say, the environmental report is incomplete and based on inaccurate assumptions and obsolete marine studies. The commission's deputy director wrote to the city Monday to clarify that the concerns were not the commission's official position but represented the opinion of commission staff.

In August, state Coastal Commission officials warned that tapping the ocean for drinking water could lead to significant destruction of marine life and also turn a public resource into a private commodity.

Critics and public officials question whether the plant will have a market for its water and be able to buy electricity at below-normal wholesale prices to hold down costs.

Poseidon's water, critics say, will cost twice as much as conventional supplies, making it unattractive to customers unless the plant is heavily subsidized.

Company officials estimate that their water will cost about $800 an acre-foot. Groundwater from the county's aquifer costs about $150 an acre-foot, while the price of imported supplies is about $500 an acre-foot.

An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough water for two families for a year.

The plant will need to buy about 35 megawatts of electricity a day, enough for 35,000 homes, from the statewide power grid.

If built, the Huntington Beach plant would produce about 7% of Orange County's demand of 700,000 acre-feet of water per year.The northern part of the county, where groundwater is available, uses about 25% imported water. South County, with little groundwater, imports 90% of its water.

Documents show that Poseidon is "soliciting interest" from agencies to buy water and discussing a sale of half the plant's output, 25 million gallons a day, to the Santa Margarita Water District in South County.

The benefits to Huntington Beach would include having a reservoir at the plant available to the city and surrounding areas during emergencies.

The city also would get property tax revenue from the plant and improvements to Newland Street. Other financial compensation has not been decided.

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