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Residents voice opposition and support for H.B. desalination plant at regional water board hearing

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Demonstrators outside a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing Friday protest against giving Poseidon’s planned Huntington Beach desalination plant a permit.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

What would a desalination plant bring to Huntington Beach? It depends on whom you ask.

Residents, experts and community and environmental advocates expressed varying views about a permit for Poseidon Resources’ proposed ocean desalination plant during a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing Friday.

Protesters outside the meeting at Huntington Beach City Hall chanted in Spanish, “Out, Poseidon!” and “Water is not for sale. It’s to be cared for and protected.”

The regional water agency is proposing to grant Poseidon a permit regarding waste discharge requirements for the $1-billion desalting facility, which would annually produce enough drinking water to supply 100,000 Orange County households but has been mired in delays and controversy since it was first proposed two decades ago.

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The board will not vote on the project until March 27, and Poseidon still needs approval from the California Coastal Commission.

Jesús Fuentes Obrador, a 19-year resident of Huntington Beach’s Oak View neighborhood, was one of the residents protesting.

He said he sees the potential for rising water and utility costs as a serious threat to low-income residents.

“There is a lack of economic solvency in the community,” Fuentes Obrador, a mechanic who first protested against the plant in 2017, said in Spanish. “It’s really difficult.”

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A UCLA study published in April said water from the Poseidon plant could double or triple the cost for ratepayers.

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Demonstrators against Poseidon’s planned ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach listen during a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing Friday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It costs too much,” said Oscar Rodriguez, co-founder of local activist group Oak View Comunidad. “If water rates go up, so does the rent.”

“We don’t really need this plant; it’s luxury water,” Rodriguez added.

Earlier during Friday’s meeting, the Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a measure declaring water a human right. Andrea León-Grossmann, deputy director of Azul, an Oakland-based ocean conservation group, argued that the Poseidon project potentially threatens that right if water rates skyrocket.

Representatives of Oak View Comunidad and Azul urged the board to extend the period for written public comments about the Poseidon issue and create another opportunity for verbal comments.

The board agreed to extend the comment period from Jan. 10 to Jan. 21. The board’s next meeting is Jan. 16 in Perris.

Mikel Hogan, representing Huntington Beach-based Residents for Responsible Desalination, said, “We want an [environmental impact report] before any action is taken to approve Poseidon because of the danger to this 12-acre area.”

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A lot has happened in the area since the 2010 EIR was conducted, she said, citing planned or ongoing projects at the former Ascon Landfill, Magnolia Tank Farm and AES power plant. “There needs to be a study of the cumulative impacts,” Hogan said.

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Artwork expresses an anti-desalination view during a protest against Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach desalting facility during Friday’s Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Though the most vocal opinions were against the permit, not all speakers were opposed.

Herb Kleeman, a 25-year Huntington Beach resident who attended the meeting with other members of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trade Council, said he’s unfazed by concerns about price hikes. He said his water bill rose 25% while water-use hours were restricted during the latest drought.

Kleeman, who has worked in the pipe trade for 39 years, often commuting to Los Angeles County project sites, sees a development like the desalination plant as a long-term job creator. “After it’s built, they have to man it,” he said.

“I’ve never worked local to where I live,” said Kleeman, whose son also works in the pipe trade, usually on jobs that take him out of Huntington Beach.

“We live in Huntington Beach, why can’t we work in Huntington Beach?” Kleeman said.

Kleeman said he’s more interested in the area becoming independent from imported water and resilient against drought. “What happens if we are cut off from buying from the Colorado River? We are in everybody else’s hands,” he said.

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Huntington Beach resident Jill Cagle, executive director of OC Wise, a local organization formed in 2015 as a response to concerns about climate change, said: “Climate change is a huge issue, and we have to do something. I think [approving Poseidon’s plant] is a really smart decision because it makes sense.”

Cagle said she sees Poseidon’s potential benefits through long-term water resiliency and self-sufficiency.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressures on our water resources, and this is one of the solutions we need to provide for the next generation,” she said.

After nearly three hours of public comments, board members made their own comments, with some raising questions about the need for the water and the soundness of the environmental data.

Some members expressed dissatisfaction with the information at their disposal.

“I feel like I need to see more environmental studies,” said board member Lana Ong Peterson. “I can’t get past the fact that the data seems flawed.”

“It seems like there’s a big disconnect between board members and staff,” said member William von Blasingame.

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