Commentary: Despite supporters’ hopes, the Poseidon project will affect the environment

Demonstrators outside the Poseidon hearings in 2019.
Demonstrators hold signs outside the Poseidon hearings in Huntington Beach, during a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board meeting in 2019.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

There is no doubt that Shirley Dettloff has been a force for positive change in Huntington Beach for a long time, especially concerning the local environment and, in particular, the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Without her early involvement, it is questionable whether we would have the invaluable wildlife habitat today that is the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. However, one must wonder if she has considered the total picture regarding the Poseidon desalination project after her recent commentary in the Daily Pilot (“Working together to safeguard the environment”, Feb. 27). Because of the considerable influence she has in the community, I think it is important to provide some additional information to flesh out the bigger picture here.

First of all, it is a fact that the Poseidon project will cause environmental damage. If it were otherwise, the company would not need to conduct mitigation efforts. Dettloff states her scientist friends “feel the environmental impacts will be minimal.” But many of the well-known and respected environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation among them, oppose this project because of the extensive damage they say it will cause.

The harmful effects, according to those organizations, will include the killing of billions marine organisms during ocean water intake, a 400-acre underwater dead zone caused by the velocity jet discharging of concentrated brine along with water pollution from the process’ solvents and chemicals, damage to the wetlands during plant construction, and continued contributions to climate change due to the intensive energy needed to process the seawater. Forget Poseidon’s recent pledge to have “a goal” to use 100% clean energy. That sounds like just another failed New Year’s resolution.

A former Huntington Beach mayor writes the Poseidon desalination project, with its commitment to protecting the Bolsa Chica wetlands, may be necessary to curb the effects of climate change.

Orange County is projected to have an adequate water supply through at least 2040, so the assertion that moving forward with this project is necessary to ensure an adequate water supply seems like cheerleading for Poseidon. The climate change Dettloff cites will include sea level rise, and with just the 1-foot rise projected by 2050, “this plant will become an inaccessible island” per the Surfrider Foundation. And the increased cost to rate-payers in this water region will be significant, most severely affecting lower-income residents.

Finally, it is important to recognize the author’s motivation for championing this project. It is true that Dettloff and others saved the existing wetlands from development and the degraded wetlands were restored as a mitigation project for the Port of L.A. due to a campaign spearheaded by Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the group she led. For that their efforts were recognized with a NOAA award in 2007, so this accomplishment is her legacy project.

Since then, however, it has come to light that the restoration project had limitations. Unlike almost all other mitigation agreements that require payments in perpetuity, this was a one-and-done deal. And the actual restoration work that was designed could not be implemented completely because there were insufficient funds to buy out the oil leases in the wetlands, resulting in an inadequate, tidal outflow to keep the newly formed inlet from closing due to sand buildup.

Now that Poseidon has dangled the prospect of doing mitigation at Bolsa Chica, including funding the necessary annual dredging of the inlet, one is left wondering if her own vested interest is clouding Dettloff’s vision of the many damaging environmental effects that are part and parcel of the Poseidon project. And let’s not forget that this builder of desalination plants has yet to complete the mitigation the company promised for its Carlsbad plant which went online in 2015.

Jeff Rokos is on the board of directors of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. He lives in Huntington Beach.

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