Home Science & TechEnvironment Amid Drought, California Desalination Project Is at a Crossroads | US News®

Amid Drought, California Desalination Project Is at a Crossroads | US News®

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By AMY TAXIN Associated Press

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — For more than two decades, California’s Orange County has debated whether to build a seaside plant to turn saltwater from the Pacific Ocean into drinking water in hopes of buffering droughts like the one now affecting the most affected in the country. populous state.

Now, Poseidon Water’s $1.4 billion proposal faces a critical review Thursday by the California Coastal Commission, which is tasked with protecting California’s picturesque coastlines.

Poseidon and his supporters, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, say the Huntington Beach plant will produce 50 million gallons of water a day, which is crucial to help deal with cutbacks in state and federal water supplies after drought years. Newsom, a Democrat, recently told the editorial board of the Bay Area News Group that a denial would be a “major setback” and that “we need more tools in the damn toolkit” to address the drought.

But environmental groups and Coastal Commission staff, who reviewed the plan, oppose it. They argue that it will harm marine life by killing small organisms that form the base of the ocean’s food web. They also say that it is vulnerable to flooding and other hazards. And some in the water industry say the cost of desalinated water is too high and not needed in an area with access to cheaper sources.

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“The ocean is not our reservoir. We do not own its content,” said Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network and a member of the Stop Poseidon coalition. “It belongs to the planet, but they are using it as their personal piggy bank and it is not a piggy bank. It needs to be protected.”

California has spent most of the last 15 years in drought conditions. Its normal rainy season that runs from late fall to late winter was especially dry this year, and as a result, 95% of the state is classified as severely dry.

Newsom last summer urged residents to reduce consumption by 15%, but since then water use has dropped by only 3%. Some areas have begun to institute generally light restrictions, in most cases limiting the number of days lawns can be watered. Tighter restrictions are likely later in the year.

Much of California’s water comes from melting snow and with snowpack well below normal, state officials have told water agencies that they will receive only 5% of what they have requested from water supplies. state water beyond what is needed for critical activities like drinking and bathing.

The idea of ​​desalination has been discussed for decades in Huntington Beach, a coastal community southeast of Los Angeles known as “Surf City USA” that relies on its sands and waves for tourism. These days, discussion of the project has also focused on the impact of climate change on regional water supplies and rising sea levels in the low-lying coastal area where the plant would be built.

Desalination takes ocean water and removes salt and other elements to make it drinkable. Those elements are discharged back into the sea, while the water can be piped directly to consumers or used to replenish a groundwater basin. The nation’s largest seawater desalination plant is already operating in nearby San Diego County, and there are coastal plants in Florida as well.

More than two decades ago, Poseidon proposed building two desalination plants: one in San Diego County and one in Huntington Beach. The San Diego County plant was approved and built, and desalinated water now accounts for 10% of the San Diego County Water District’s water supply.

But the Huntington Beach project has faced numerous delays. In 2013, the Coastal Commission raised concerns that the proposed use of intake structures to rapidly withdraw large volumes of ocean water would harm marine life. Poseidon, owned by Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, conducted additional studies and resubmitted the plan with a proposal to mitigate marine damage by restoring nearby wetlands.

Thursday’s commission hearing is seen by supporters and opponents of the bill as a do-or-die event. Last month, panel staff members issued a 200-page report opposing the project, arguing that it fails to comply with policies to protect marine life and policies intended to minimize the dangers of tsunamis and sea level rise. sea.

Orange County has an extensive groundwater basin and recycles wastewater, making the region less reliant on imported water than San Diego. The Orange County Water District, which has said it intends to purchase the Poseidon water, manages the watershed that helps meet about 75% of water demand in the densely populated north and central areas of the county that They are home to 2.5 million people.

Poseidon maintains that the county would still benefit from ensuring a drought-proof source, but critics argue that the area can do without it and would be better served economically and environmentally by focusing more on recycling, noting that it is already expanding the the county’s renowned wastewater recycling program. on going.

“It’s diversifying our supply like an insurance policy,” said Jessica Jones, director of communications for Poseidon. She said the benefits would extend beyond coastal California to inland communities and other states that could gain greater access to imported water supplies once Orange County becomes desalinated.

Steve Sheldon, president of the water district, said he was confident other water agencies would also be interested in the water once it was safe. Desalinated water is more expensive now, but Sheldon said he expects the cost of imported water to rise over time as well.

“Water supplies are running low,” Sheldon said. “This plant can be built in four years and I don’t know of any other project that can come online in at least a decade.”

But Paul Cook, general manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District, one of Orange County’s water retailers, said he doesn’t see a need for the water in a county that has its own vast and diverse water sources. He said he doesn’t want to buy expensive and unnecessary desalinated water for his customers, which increases household water bills.

“It could work in Abu Dhabi or Israel, but we’re not them,” he said of desalination. “We have our own needs, we have our own resources.”

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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