Before We Turn On the Tap

There's an alchemistic lure about the prospect of turning the salty ocean into sparkling, potable water. Liquid gold from base brine, and this time technology can pull it off. But there are still more questions than answers about desalinating water on a large scale.

Huntington Beach was right to hold off on making any decisions on a proposed desalination plant, and public water officials should not pressure the city to act or force the plant on unwilling officials.

Local environmentalists have raised some strange objections to the plans by Poseidon Resources to build a $250-million desalination plant at the AES power plant on Pacific Coast Highway. Among them: The ocean is a public resource that a private operation has no right to tap. As though fishing fleets and cruise ships and other industries don't use the ocean to make money.

The Orange County Water District, which also is interested in desalination, could resolve that issue, but not to environmentalists' satisfaction, by forming a partnership with Poseidon or proposing the plant itself. As a government water project, the plant would be exempt from local planning decisions.

Before moving forward, water officials should heed the more substantive concerns about desalination raised last summer in a report by the California Coastal Commission staff.

What would happen to costs after the initial contracts expire? Could it construct the plant for the money it envisions and still install the expensive equipment that protects the environment, such as a water-intake system that allows fish to swim back out to the ocean? Would Huntington Beach be left with a white elephant along its shore if the desalination plant fails, as others have done?

A report by the water district has come under harsh criticism from Huntington Beach council members and from one of the district's own committee chairmen, who says the report outlines low production costs that no other plant has achieved.

The public -- and the city -- shouldn't trash desalination as an idea simply because all the kinks haven't been worked out. Technology does exist to minimize environmental damage -- if operators invest in doing things right.

The plant could even provide an environmental plus by drastically reducing dependence on groundwater. Subsidies are available to help with the cost.

To their credit, rather than dismissing the Coastal Commission report, Poseidon officials said it raised good issues that they are willing to address.

For now, though, city officials are right to take their time in deciding the next step. Even minimal efforts to conserve would keep the water flowing to customers in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Newport Beach -- the three cities that would get water from the Poseidon plant -- while Huntington Beach examines the matter.

A thirst for good information is just as important as a thirst for water.

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