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In a state facing as many challenges as California, one has bedeviled us even longer than chronic budget deficits. For decades, in times of both prosperity and recession, we have grappled with the problem of securing enough water.

While the drought was ended this year by heavier-than-usual rainfall, drought will continue to be a recurring reality in Southern California. We tend to forget that we live in a desert and the way of life we enjoy is due to the foresight of our civic forebears who built the great water projects that irrigate this desert.

While that pioneering spirit has ebbed in more liberal, benighted parts of the state, it remains alive in Huntington Beach. On Tuesday, September 7, the city council votes on whether to approve a project that will lessen Orange County’s dependence on expensive imported water, create jobs, generate much needed tax revenue for the city and generally advance our ability to benignly utilize technology to harness nature for human benefit.

I’m referring to the desalination plant Poseidon Resources wants to build next the AES power plant in Huntington Beach. The project is likely to receive the support of a majority of the Huntington Beach city council. Still, the issue is worth examining because it is a textbook case of how an objectively beneficial infrastructure project is being Borked by a tiny but loud and dishonest opposition.

In a nutshell, here’s how the Poseidon project will work: the power plant draws in seawater through intake pipes for cooling purposes. Poseidon’s desalination plant will uses reverse-osmosis to turn a portion of that seawater into drinking water. The AES power plant permitted to draw in up to 514 million gallons per day, but the desalination plant needs just 127 million gallons of seawater a day to operate.

The desalination plant is a $350 million project that is 100% privately funded. Poseidon will function as a water wholesaler, selling its desalinated water to 20 Orange County water agencies with purchase agreements will be signed.

The Poseidon desalination plants benefits are manifest:

  • It will produce 50 million gallons of vitally needed fresh water per day. To put that huge number into meaningful terms, it is enough to meet the annual water requirements of 300,000 people – about 10 percent of Orange County’s population.
  • It will reduce Orange County’s reliance on imported water sources significantly
  • Plant construction – which will take approximately two years – will create 2,100 good-paying, badly-needed construction jobs.
  • It provides OC with a reliable water source not subject to interruption by drought or by competing interests elsewhere in California.

Among the direct benefits to the City of Huntington Beach:

  • Generation of an estimated $100 million in additional tax revenue and cost-savings during the next 30 years.
  • 3 million gallons of the desal plant’s daily output will be sold to HB residents at a 5% discount.
  • Poseidon will construct a 10 million gallon water storage tank for Huntington Beach – allowing the city to use the $16.5 million it had budgeted for the project for other civic needs.

This is an easy call from a public policy stand-point: a private-sector enterprise using advanced technology to provide Orange County with a more reliable water supply, while simultaneously creating jobs and generate local tax revenue. Plus, it is supported by the vast majority of Huntington Beach residents – according to a recent poll 71% of city residents favor the project.

[Side Note:News that the Huntington Beach City Council will be voting on the Poseidon project next week may give some readers a sense of déjà vu, and rightly so: in 2005, the council voted to approve the project’s Revised EIR. On September 7, the council will weigh in on a Subsequent Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) examining the desal plant’s impact on marine life if the power plant changes its cooling system from seawater to another cooling source sometime in the future- and it is the SEIR the Huntington Beach Council is voting on this Tuesday.

Given enviros’ and NIMBYs’ tendency to resort to litigation when they lose in the political arena, Poseidon wants to close off that potential avenue for legal challenge. Welcome to the wonderful world of environmental impact reports!]

It’s genuinely difficult to see how any reasonable person could oppose approval of this project — which explains why the opposition is led by unreasonable people, namely environmental extremists and NIMBYs.  The former think generating 50 million gallons of drinking water each day is less important than some microscopic fish eggs (99% of which will die, regardless) and plankton that will get sucked into the seawater intake pipe. The latter oppose building anything new on the property of a power plant they wish would go away – even though it was there when they moved in.

Mix in the vintage, straight-from-the-1970s, Jerry Brown-type belief that you can stop growth by killing a new water supply, and you’ve distilled the intellectual essence of Poseidon’s antagonists.

What Poseidon opponents lack in numbers and support they make up for in volume and disregard for facts. They have fielded a Bogus Army of arguments, none of which hold water (pardon the pun).

Let’s consider some of them:

Myth: Poseidon’s fumbled the desal plant in Tampa, Florida.

I’ve heard this one for a long time, but it melts under examination. Mesa Consolidated Water District President Shawn Dewane ably demolishes this claim at length in this article, but here’s the thumbnail version: Tampa Bay Water contracted with Poseidon to build a desal plant. A year into the construction phase, the water agency exercised a contract option, bought out Poseidon and took complete control of the project. Tampa Bay Water officials told Dewane “they thought they could avoid development risk and save money by assuming ownership and publicly financing the project.”

Problems that could not have been anticipated emerged after Tampa Water bought out Poseidon, for which the water agency does not blame Poseidon.

If Poseidon were at fault for the difficulties the Tampa desal endeavor encountered, Poseidon critics would have a point. But the facts of the case oppose them.

Even more disturbing to me is the skittish tendency of enviros to call for abandoning any infrastructure project that runs into a glitch. If that were the historically prevalent attitude in this nation, we’d never have built the Transcontinental Railroad or the Hoover Dam.

Myth: The Poseidon project is subsidized by the government.

It always kills me when the enviro extremists, who could care less about the economic costs of their policies, turn into fiscal conservatives. But here they are just wrong.

This myth springs from the giant Metropolitan Water District’s policy of furnishing a $250-acre foot subsidy for new water projects, in hope of diminishing reliance on imported water. However, the subsidy only goes to public water agencies, and the Poseidon desalination plant is a private venture. It’s true enough that OC public water agencies will likely use the subsidy to buy water from the Poseidon plant, but to claim the project is subsidized by the government is a deliberate untruth.

Myth: If Poseidon goes bankrupt, taxpayers will be on the hook to clean up the mess.

I don’t think Poseidon has any plans on going bankrupt, nor do I think they’d be pressing forward if that were a realistic possibility. Nevertheless, it’s a base worth covering and the permits issued by the city require the company to post a surety bond for both the plant and pipeline construction. In the event the project goes belly up, the bond would pay to restore the site to its present condition.

Myth: Instead of desal plant, replace the AES power plant with a park.

Yes, you read that correctly. This is the NIMBY crew’s idea of an “alternative.” And it’s not so much a myth as it is a fantasy. The power plant isn’t going anywhere. And even if it were, there are no funds to acquire the property and build a park.

Opponents also complain that Poseidon’s project relies on the AES power plant’s seawater intake pipe. They like alternative technologies like the “beach wells” proposed for a desal plant in Dana Point. Beach wells involve snaking an intake pipe a long-distance offshore under the sand, and sucking the seawater in a long-distance offshore, using the sandy seabed as a natural filtration system.

It’s interesting technology – but it isn’t feasible for Poseidon large-scale desal plant. The proposed Dana Point project is a much smaller desal facility that is still undergoing feasibility studies, and there are no large-scale desal plants – bigger than 20 million gallons a day in size – using beach wells.

Opponents also claim the water produced by Poseidon’s plant will be more expensive than imported water. And they’re right in the short run. But the point is also irrelevant. Of course water from a new source like the desal plant will be (somewhat) more expensive than water delivered by systems that were built and paid for decades ago. Water is a long-run business, and during the next decade the price-points of Poseidon water and MWD will cross.  The cost of desalinating seawater has consistently dropped over the last two decades as technology improves, while the cost of importing water has consistently risen as drought and environmental restrictions have naturally and artificially limited the imported water supply.

I could go on, but I think readers get the point. Opposition to the Poseidon project is driven by an anti-free market ideology: one critic came to a regular water policy committee meeting last month and said he opposes it precisely because it is a private project; she thinks it should be run by the government.

If you read the website of “Residents for Responsible Desalination,” it quickly becomes apparent that, contrary to their moniker, this group believes the only “responsible” desalination is no desalination. It is dominated by individuals whose track record is of hostility to free enterprise, property rights and development of any kind.

Or, opposition stems from a NIMBY mentality fearful the Poseidon plant will prolong the life of the AES power plant – a groundless fear since our need for power and water is constant and will increase, so the power plant will remain for the conceivable future.

The common thread is a hysterical reliance on half-truths, untruths and myths, loudly and persistently repeated in hopes of creating a cloud of doubt.

Which brings us back to the point: in debates about infrastructure projects like the Poseidon desalination plant – be they private or public – what should prevail? Facts, sound science and common sense policymaking? Or hysteria, fearfulness and ideological extremism?

Those, in my opinion, are the elements at play in the manufactured controversy over the Poseidon desalination plant. Too often in California, good public policy loses out to hysteria, to the detriment of the state’s future viability.

Poseidon Resources’ project is not a panacea for our water ills. But it is a good project. It will provide Orange County with more water and more jobs. It will provide Huntington Beach with capital improvements and increased tax revenue. It will utilize advanced, proven, environmentally-sound technology. The broad swath of Huntington Beach residents support it.

There is every indication that next week, the Huntington Beach councilmembers will vote to approve the SEIR and move the desalination plant further down the road to becoming an operational reality. It will be a vote for common sense and genuine progress in the best traditions of California, and send a signal through the public policy world that environmental hysteria doesn’t have to own the day.