A view from the water near the ocean-water cooling intake pipe of the AES… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
The bid to bring a large-scale desalination plant to Southern California cleared a major hurdle Friday when water regulators approved a permit for a Huntington Beach facility to turn seawater into drinking water.
Connecticut-based firm Poseidon Resources is proposing a seawater desalination plant on a 12-acre site next to a coastal power plant, which is adjacent to a popular state beach.
According to the company, it would be the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere. The $350-million facility, they said, would supply 50 million gallons of drinking water a day — enough to supply 300,000 people.
Although local water agencies, lawmakers and the business community generally support building the plant, environmentalists say its ocean water intake system would kill fish, plankton larvae and other sea creatures, while spitting extra salty water known as "brine" back into the ocean. The discharged water would be tainted with iron and cleaning fluids, critics say.
The project, approved by the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board at a meeting Friday in Loma Linda, had to be retooled by Poseidon, whose earlier plans to draw water released from the AES natural gas-fueled power plant were stymied by new regulations.
A state policy adopted in 2010 will phase out the use of seawater to cool coastal power plants, a process that kills fish, larvae, eggs, seals, sea lions, turtles and other creatures when they get trapped against screens or sucked into the plant and exposed to heated water.
The new policy by the state water board would end seawater cooling at the Huntington Beach power plant as early as 2020, but it does not apply to stand-alone desalination plants.
Conservation groups say the company's new proposal seeks to bypass those restrictions.
"It's going to perpetuate the use of the type of cooling that the state tried to eliminate," said Ray Hiemstra, associate program director for Orange County Coastkeeper, a watershed conservation group. "It's just perpetuating a killing machine."
The company says environmental groups exaggerate the toll on sea life.
Scott Maloni, a vice president for Poseidon Resources, said the impact on marine life would be insignificant "in exchange for producing a drought-proof drinking-water supply for 300,000 people."
Supporters, including local public water agencies, building and chamber groups and a number of state and local lawmakers, say the desalination plant would provide a reliable, local water supply for Orange County, which relies mostly on imported water.
Some half a dozen desalination plants are under consideration along the California coast, but only a handful of small facilities and demonstration projects have been built.
Poseidon is further along on a proposal to build a similar desalination plant in Carlsbad and has asked for the state's permission to issue $780 million in tax-exempt bonds to help pay for it. The firm could break ground on that facility as early as this summer, Maloni said. The earliest the Huntington Beach plant could start operating is 2016, the company said.
Poseidon's only previous attempt at a desalination plant was not successful. Tampa Bay Water bought out Poseidon's interest in the Apollo Beach, Fla., facility after contractors filed for bankruptcy. The plant, which uses water from Tampa Bay, was shut down for several years for repairs and, since coming back online, has had difficulties meeting its promised 25 million gallons a day.
The Huntington Beach project, which has been in the works for more than 12 years, still needs approval from the state Coastal Commission to move forward.
The project is certain to get another hearing; environmental groups said they would appeal the decision to the state water board. State water regulators are collecting scientific and technical data in order to draft new policies on seawater intake specific to desalination plants. The policies could be adopted in the next year.