By: Parimal M. Rohit
HUNTINGTON BEACH — California borders the world’s largest ocean yet is in the midst of a record-setting drought. The close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, combined with a need to find an immediate solution to California’s water shortage, has sparked a debate of whether local cities should build desalination plants. While the idea of converting ample amounts of saltwater to consumable freshwater might seem like a plausible solution to California’s current drought, environmentalists warn desalination plants could be harmful to the marine life and recreational anglers.
Poseidon is aiming to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach by 2018. If built, the 50-million-gallon per day plant would be located near the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Newland Street and next to the AES Huntington Beach Power Station.
The proposed desalination plant could have an impact on recreational fishing once it is operational, according to Orange County Coastkeeper Associate Director Ray Hiemstra.
“The project will create a brine plume that will stretch from the outfall pipe near Newland Street all the way to the Santa Ana River outlet. While this plume will not kill fish outright it will create an area that they will avoid (due to high salinity) and impact shore fishing in the state park,” Hiemstra said.
How the desalination plant would impact marine life once it is up and running has not yet been fleshed out by the Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) board, even though the agency approved a term sheet May 14 to allow civic leaders and Poseidon to enter final negotiations for the proposed desalination plant.
“OCWD has not discussed or gotten involved with this aspect of the project,” Harry Sidhu, one of the water board’s board members, said in response to a question of whether the desalination plant would impact recreational fishing. “The district is relying upon the California Coastal Commission and the State Water Resources Control Board to impose the necessary conditions and restrictions in the permits they both issue to protect the marine environment. Both of these agencies routinely deal with coastal issues and have the necessary technical experience and staff as well as the regulatory power.
Sidhu added the Coastal Commission is reviewing alternative intake systems and will determine whether to require Poseidon to construct a new system or modify an existing one already in place.
“If Poseidon is ultimately allowed to modify the existing AES intake system, they will have to reconstruct the intake and install very small (wedge wire) screens to minimize the impact to the environment,” Sidhu said. “Additionally Poseidon will have to provide additional mitigation such as funding new wetlands for the small amounts of ocean life they do kill.”
Indeed, Poseidon still has a few hoops to jump through as the plant developer attempts to complete the permitting process. The project will not move forward until the Coastal Commission gives Poseidon its blessings to build the plant on the Huntington Beach coastline.
Still, Poseidon boasts its desalination plant on Orange County’s north central coast will benefit its surrounding community, such as infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy during the life of the plant and creating more than 2,000 jobs during construction. Once operational, the plant itself would require 18 fulltime jobs and 322 indirect jobs, according to Poseidon.
An advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, hosts a webpage opposing Poseidon’s proposed desalination plant and claims the developer “relies on outdated technology that kills marine life.”
Food and Water Watch, in a report published in 2009, said fish and marine life would be drawn into the desalination plant with the ocean water and not survive once inside.
“On its way into a plant, the ocean water brings with it billions of fish and other organisms that die in the machinery,” the 2009 report stated. “According to EPA, these intake structures kill at least 3.4 billion fish and other organisms annually. Larger organisms are trapped against the intake screens, and smaller ones, such as fish eggs and larvae, are drawn through the intake screens and destroyed in the cooling system. As a result, fishermen lose at least 165 million pounds of fish today and 717.1 million pounds of potential future catch. This is equivalent to a $212.5 million economic loss to anglers and commercial fishermen.”
A similar desalination plant is being built by Poseidon in Carlsbad, about 60 miles south of Huntington Beach. Civic leaders in nearby Oceanside are also looking to develop a desalination plant near the city’s harbor.
According to news reports, the desalination plant in Carlsbad is expected to be completed before the end of this year and could produce 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, good enough to hydrate almost 10 percent of San Diego County’s 3.2 million residents. Once operational, Carlsbad’s desalination plant — which reportedly cost more than $1 billion to build — will be the largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere.
Desalination plant developers such as Poseidon hope to convert saltwater into freshwater via reverse osmosis.