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Environment & Science

Why Huntington Beach's desalination plant has so many fans

The desalination project Poseidon Resources proposes would sit behind a power plant. (The artist's visualization is circled in yellow.)
The desalination project Poseidon Resources proposes would sit behind a power plant. (The artist's visualization is circled in yellow.)
HB Freshwater

In the 12 years since a desalination plant was first proposed for Huntington Beach, a lot of things have changed. But public support for the idea not only remains strong, it's strengthening. 

Poseidon Resources is the company that wants to build a $350 million project that it says would turn out 50 million gallons of water a day. Its PR firm is circulating a “scientific public opinion research survey” of Huntington Beach voters, showing that almost two-thirds of those surveyed support the desal plant, many strongly, and just one-quarter oppose it. 

A story back in February in the LA Times lays out the arguments of Poseidon’s supporters and opponents. 

“It's going to perpetuate the use of the type of cooling that the state tried to eliminate,” [said] Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Programs 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.” 

The state is still deciding how to respond to those competing arguments: the application is before the Coastal Commission right now. (The Huntington Beach City Council approved Poseidon's project six years ago.)

It's interesting that support for desalination is so strong in southern California. Another survey of San Diego voters back in August found a slight uptick in love for desal over last year. It’s curious, too, that public opinion in favor of desalination doesn’t seem to directly track with the strength of the case for projects like this. 

A few weeks back, an Associated Press article explored the changing ways that desal projects are penciling out in California. During long approval processes, water conservation has changed the demand for supplies: 

"We found that our demand for water had dropped so much since the time we started exploring desalination, we didn't need the water," said Libby Pischel, a spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District. "Right now, conservation costs less than desalination."

That math differs from community to community; what might be true for Marin may not be true for San Diego or Huntington Beach. So unless or until conservation ends up being a better deal than desalination everywhere, public support for desal will probably remain strong.