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Tentative order released for controversial Poseidon water project

Poseidon Water plans to build a desalination plant next to AES Huntington Beach Generating Station.
Poseidon Water plans to build a seawater desalination plant next to the AES Huntington Beach Generating Station.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Santa Ana Regional Water Board released a tentative order Friday detailing proposed revisions to Poseidon Water’s controversial proposed $1.4-billion water desalination project in Huntington Beach.

The board’s tentative order would make Poseidon responsible for five mitigation projects, including four projects within the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the restoration of a 41.5-acre rocky reef offshore of Palos Verdes. The four proposed wetlands projects include the long-term preservation of the wetland’s ocean inlet, restoration of the wetland’s intertidal shelf, restoration of the wetland’s muted tidal basin and creation of the muted tidal basin water circulating system.

Two hearings with oral public comments are scheduled for April to review the revisions and vote on renewing Poseidon’s permit.

Should Poseidon ultimately receive approval from the Santa Ana Regional Water Board, it would still need approval from the California Coastal Commission before the desalination plant could move forward.

While working its way through the approval process, the project has met with disapproval from some concerned about potential impacts on the environment.

The seven-member regional water board held three hearings last summer. They failed to come to a vote on the desalination plant but expressed doubts about the need for it and concerns about Poseidon’s proposed mitigation efforts as well as the potential for harm to marine life caused by the facility’s intake process.

A hearing scheduled for September was delayed so Poseidon could have more time to address the concerns.

State official’s comments questioned

Critics of the proposed plant not only say the cost of the desalinized water would be too pricey but are also critical of disclosures made public Friday that three members of the Santa Ana Regional Water Board received “ex parte” text messages and calls from California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld during last summer’s hearings. Ex parte communications, in this context, include when a board member is contacted about a project outside of a public meeting.

The disclosures are online for public review.

Board directors Joe Kerr and Lana Ong Peterson disclosed Friday that Blumenfeld had asked how the meetings were going, while Kerr added that he asked when the board might make a decision. Kris Murray, who was called two days before the third meeting, said that Blumenfeld had “mentioned the administration’s commitment to water quality and statewide water resilience.”

Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, said in reaction to Friday’s disclosures that his group is deciding its next steps in regards to the project.

“We’re going to write a comment letter, exploring the legality of different issues and whether folks need to be disqualified or not,” Bothwell said. “The communications happened right before an adoption hearing, and nothing got adopted. But they could have approved the project without any of the disclosures that they were having this communication. That we still find troubling.”

Erin Curtis, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy secretary for communications and external affairs, said in an email that Blumenfeld’s job includes being in regular contact with regional water board staff and members on a variety of issues.

“Secretary Blumenfeld reached out to three members of the Santa Ana Board to offer his office’s assistance,” Curtis said. “It was subsequently determined, out of an abundance of caution, that these conversations would benefit from being placed into the public record. By affording other parties an awareness and an opportunity to comment on the communications, these inadvertent ex parte communications are deemed as being cured.”

Hope Smythe, the regional water board’s executive officer, said in an email Tuesday that she does not believe there are grounds for recusal of any board member and expects all the board members to be able to continue to participate in the proceeding.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not publicly commented on the Poseidon project, but some have criticized him for replacing vocal desalination plant critic William von Blasingame on the regional water board when his term ended in October. He also attended a Nov. 6 birthday dinner in the Napa Valley for lobbyist Jason Kinney, whose firm, Axiom Advisors, includes Poseidon among its clients.

Latino environmental justice group Azul released a video Tuesday critical of Newsom, his ties to Kinney and his role in Poseidon’s approval process.

“The last three appointments to that regional board — Kris Murray, Kerr and [Leticia Clark] — have all been directly related to approving this project,” said Ray Hiemstra of Orange County Coastkeeper, who opposes the project. “Very, very unusual. Most of the time, nobody pays any attention to what these water boards are doing.”

Members of the Santa Ana Regional Water Control Board participated in a special Zoom meeting Aug. 7.
Members of the Santa Ana Regional Water Control Board participated in a special Zoom meeting Aug. 7 to discuss the proposed Poseidon water desalination plant. Director William von Blasingame has since been replaced.
(Matt Szabo)

Poseidon is also asking the board to let it assume responsibility for preserving the Bolsa Chica ocean inlet within a year after securing project construction financing, rather than prior to discharge.

Last summer, board members had agreed that the desalination facility would be prohibited from discharges until it obtained mitigation permits, but Poseidon vice president Scott Maloni said that would delay the company’s effort to secure construction financing by more than a decade.

“Poseidon shares the regional board’s desire that the restoration projects are implemented in a timely manner and the permit’s mitigation conditions are strictly enforceable,” Maloni said in a statement. “The permit condition proposed by Poseidon achieves this goal, while ensuring the regional board approves a legally defensible permit for a feasible project that can move forward in the state’s permitting process and be successfully financed in a reasonable period of time.”

The plant would be located at 21730 Newland St. and would produce approximately 50 million gallons of potable drinking water per day.

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