Commentary: Doheny proposal proves it’s possible to do desalination right in Orange County

Detractors and supporters of the Poseidon desalination water facility voice their opinion during the California State Lands Commission meeting at Huntington Beach City Hall on Oct. 19.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Corporate profiteers like Poseidon have given seawater desalination a bad name, but a proposal in south Orange County shows that it is possible to use this technology responsibly.

While Poseidon’s oversized, overpriced and outdated Huntington Beach project is widely opposed, the smaller plant South Coast Water District wants to build near Doheny State Beach has earned broad support, including from environmental groups like Orange County Coastkeeper.

The difference between these two plants owes everything to the motives and goals of their backers. Poseidon is a private company that sells water to make its rich investors richer.


South Coast Water District is a public agency whose job is to serve the community. Poseidon has already started exploring the possibility of selling its Carlsbad desalination plant, according to Bloomberg, and has had reliability problems, according to the Voice of San Diego.

By contrast, South Coast will remain accountable to ratepayers, and stick around to manage the performance, maintenance and impacts of any new infrastructure it develops.

That is why South Coast is proposing to use underground wells, pumps and pipes to draw in ocean water, reducing the harm to local sea life and fisheries. We have urged Poseidon to adopt a similar design, but they want to cut corners by using a massive open pipe from the power plant next door.

In order to maximize its profits, Poseidon is proposing a plant larger than Doheny and more expensive. The company wants a 30-year contract that commits Orange County ratepayers to buying every drop, regardless of need, at a price that is more than twice the cost of imported water. This would be a great deal for Poseidon’s investors, but a lousy one for residents, because, in fact, they don’t need the water.

Poseidon’s heavily lobbied client, Orange County Water District, sits on top of a massive aquifer. With this huge reserve under our feet, and a water recycling facility, it is impossible to make a compelling case for needing Poseidon’s overpriced water.

South Orange County’s situation is different. Unlike portions of the county that would be served by Poseidon, the south has just one small aquifer, which relies on rainfall. That limits the region’s ability to store water for dry periods.

South Coast has done a good job with conservation, but it still has to import most of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River. In this region with limited alternatives, the 5-million-gallon-per-day Doheny desalination plant will be play an important role as a backup supply.

Unlike Doheny, Poseidon’s project can’t stand on its merits: it’s unnecessary and expensive, and will kill fish and guzzle energy. Rather than address valid public concerns about cost and impacts, the company has spent millions to buy the support of local, state and federal officials.

Fortunately, Orange County residents don’t have to look far to see an example of desalination done right. We know there are better options than Poseidon, and we’re not buying what they’re selling.

Garry Brown is the founder and Executive Director of Orange County Coastkeeper.