Conservationists challenge development

In Local News, News
( Briggetta Pierrot / Daily Titan )
Orange County Coastkeeper and Residents for Responsible Desalination believe there are safer solutions to California’s water shortage than the proposed desalination plant for Huntington Beach.
( Briggetta Pierrot / Daily Titan )

A rainy day this January brought troubling news for a group of Orange County locals. With high risks of flooding, Orange County Coastkeeper and Residents for Responsible Desalination (R4RD) believe the upcoming Huntington Beach desalination plant may be more trouble than it’s worth. Coastkeeper said on their website that they believe there are better alternatives to Poseidon Water’s proposed desalination plant, considering the risk of flooding and pollution.

A partner of  Coastkeeper, R4RD seeks to educate the public about desalination processes, ensure desal plants use the best technology and safest practices in their construction and operation, as well as promote preferable alternatives to desalination, according to the organization’s website.

On Jan. 12, Ray Hiemstra, associate director of programs for  Coastkeeper, took a small group on a hike at the Huntington Beach Magnolia Marsh to help them visualize what Huntington Beach might look like in 50 years with the addition of a desalination plant.

Like other coastal areas, Huntington Beach is subject to flooding. During January’s California storms, Orange County experienced how volatile its coasts may become during intense rainfall and biannual king tides, which are extreme high tides. With water levels dangerously close to the levee at the Marsh, the risk of flooding along the coast was clear.

If Poseidon built a smaller plant that used subsurface wells to further prevent marine wildlife harm and addressed its brine discharge,  Coastkeeper wouldn’t be as opposed to the construction of the desal plant, Hiemstra said. One of Coastkeeper’s biggest concerns is Poseidon’s prior discharge infraction at its Carlsbad plant from April of last year.

Brian Lochrie, communications consultant for Poseidon Water, said that the self-reported infraction was a minor issue at the plant’s start-up that was addressed immediately, but Coastkeeper remains concerned about the issue.

Poseidon’s proposed desalination plant would make use of the power plant’s water intake systems which Coastkeeper fears could potentially harm small marine wildlife while it’s operational. Lochrie said that the new intake system would have screen filters that prevent anything thicker than a credit card from passing through, as well as a velocity limit for the intake to allow marine life to swim away.

Coastkeeper and R4RD are also concerned with the proposed area on the Newport-Inglewood fault near the marsh where the desalination plant would be placed. The fault remains active but the plant would be engineered to reduce structural risks. The plant would be built on raised ground and there would be berms as well to reduce the risk of flooding, Lochrie said. However, Coastkeeper believes there is a more simple, risk-free alternative.

“The smartest thing you can do is not build in a flood zone on a fault,” Hiemstra said.

While the company’s proposed 50 million gallons of water per day sounds promising, the plant may be a wholly unnecessary risk, Hiemstra said.

Californians have conserved almost 765 billion gallons of water since June 2015, according to November 2016 statewide conservation data. Hiemstra said that with such tremendous water conservation as of late, a desalination plant in an area susceptible to flooding would be a waste.

“We don’t need the water at all,” Hiemstra said.

Merle Mosishri, president of R4RD, said the organization has strongly opposed the building of a desalination plant for 13 years for reasons ranging from flooding to monetary impact. She said she is “concerned” that companies like Poseidon are more interested in the economic benefits of building a desalination plant than the environmental impact or necessity.

“It leaves us vulnerable to people who would prey upon disaster and we don’t need that,” Mosishri said.

Poseidon’s goal in building a desalination plant is to further increase Orange County’s water independence on top of groundwater replenishment efforts by reducing the amount of imported water received from Northern California and the Colorado River, Lochrie said.

R4RD board member Richard Armendariz said the organization supports the expansion of the Los Angeles County Groundwater Replenishment System as an alternative to a desalination plant. However, with all of the water being saved by California residents, Mosishri believes that the issue does not lie with the quantity of water available.

“If our water agencies can’t manage the water we have right now, that’s the issue,” Mosishri said.

Despite Poseidon’s assurance of flood, earthquake and marine life safety, Coastkeeper and R4RD remain unconvinced of the necessity of the plant and opposed to its construction.

“If Orange County water district needed an ocean water desalination plant, we would have built our own by now,” Mosishri said.

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