Huntington Beach desalination plant: How it might have been operating by now
Poseidon Water started pumping drinking water from its Carlsbad desalination plant 3 1/2 years ago, but the location of that first desalination plant might have been in Huntington Beach instead.
Plans for Poseidon operations at both locations were launched in 1998, but company officials prioritized the Carlsbad site in 2006, according to company Vice President Scott Maloni.
The slower timeline for Huntington Beach resulted in it facing new, stricter regulations and additional delays. The controversial plant still needs two major permits, opponents remain steadfast and a recent water study raised questions about the need for the project.
Meanwhile, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant is producing enough water daily to serve nearly 400,000 people. Last year, the plant accounted to nearly 10 percent of all potable water distributed by the San Diego County Water Authority.
“It could have been reversed,” Maloni said of the fate of the two plants, which each carry a $1 billion price tag along with the promise of a drought-proof source of water.
Maloni was first hired by Poseidon in 2003 as a consultant to the Carlsbad proposal, and was brought on staff in 2008 to take over the reins of the Huntington Beach plant.
But he was back in Carlsbad on Tuesday as part of a public tour requested by the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is expected to vote later this year on one of the remaining permits needed in Huntington Beach by Poseidon. If approved, Poseidon will then go to the California Coastal Commission for its final permit.
New environmental rules
While some opponents dispute details of Maloni’s account, the Poseidon executive said both projects were headed to the Coastal Commission when the company decided to prioritize Carlsbad in 2006. Staffing at the commission was inadequate for it to promptly process two such complex, specialized projects simultaneously, he said.
“We felt that this project was farther along,” Maloni said of the decision to put Carlsbad on the front burner. Neither Maloni nor fellow Poseidon Vice President Peter MacLaggan, who oversees the Carlsbad plant, could recall after Tuesday’s tour what aspects of the Carlsbad plant were more developed.
The Carlsbad plant was hardly a breeze with regulators. It didn’t break ground until 2015 and not until prevailing in an environmental lawsuit filed by the Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper.
“We thought once there was one plant, the second would be easy” to get approved, he said.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Carlsbad got in under the wire, winning an exception to new regulations imposed by the California Ocean Plan that went into effect in 2016.
But the Huntington Beach proposal was sent back to the drawing board. In an effort to minimize damage to sea life, the Ocean Plan outlined stricter rules for how ocean water could be taken into a desalination plant and how the brine byproduct of desalination was to be pumped back into the ocean.
Among related delays was the expiration of the plant’s Regional Water Quality Control Board permit. And among the issues still under review by the board is whether the updated proposal for ocean intake is the most environmentally sensitive that is feasible.
Ray Hiemstra of Orange County Coastkeeper, which opposes the plant, disputes Maloni’s view that the Huntington Beach plant could have been operating by now if it had been prioritized, saying that there were more unresolved issues in Huntington Beach than in Carlsbad.
“This one they could get through,” Hiemstra said during the Carlsbad tour. “Huntington Beach they couldn’t.”
Asked about Hiemstra’s characterization, Maloni said he could not recall there being more regulatory obstacles for Huntington Beach than Carlsbad when the decision was made to prioritize the San Diego County project.