Column: This desalination plan stinks all the way from Orange County to Gov. Newsom's office

Steve Lopez
·6 min read
HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA - February 17: A view of the older AES Huntington Beach Power Station at left, and new one at right, and is the proposed site of the Poseidon Desalination Plant, which would draw ocean water through an existing intake pipe at Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 in Huntington Beach, CA. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Poseidon Water plans to build a seawater desalination plant next to this Huntington Beach power generation plant. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

With all that’s been going on in California during the pandemic, it’s been difficult at times to keep track of the latest state-sponsored debacles.

You'd need a scorecard, a good set of reading glasses and a special prosecutor to stay on top of it all.

The botched vaccine rollout, mixed messaging and delivery inequities are enough to keep anyone busy. And when the state introduced the My Turn vaccination scheduling system, which was supposed to straighten things out, nobody was surprised to learn that it’s full of bugs, or that people of means managed to get vaccinations intended for low-income communities hardest hit by COVID-19.

On top of that, we’ve had one of the greatest boondoggles in state history, with billions of dollars scammed from the Employment Development Department by prison inmates and others, while needy, out-of-work people were left penniless and waiting for months to get hold of anyone in Sacramento who might help.

And so it was easy to miss a development that flew under the radar in recent months, until my colleague Bettina Boxall laid out the details of a desalination plant project that stinks all the way from Huntington Beach to the French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley to the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

If you haven’t already done so, please acquaint yourself with how politics work in California by reading Boxall’s Feb. 23 story, which carried a headline that neatly sums things up: "Newsom pushes private seawater desalting plant over local and environmental opposition."

Let me begin by saying that desalination may have a role to play in addressing California's long-running water shortage issues. After all, we’ve got a 1,100-mile coastline in a drought-stricken state, and it’s only natural to think: Hey, let’s just stick a straw in the ocean, and our rabid thirst will be quenched once and for all.

But desalination comes with many costs, including big hits to the environment and ratepayer pocketbooks. And as Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network, puts it, we need to temper our lust for what seems an easy fix.

“Desalination is the last place you want to go,” said Jordan. “Conservation, recycling — those are better alternatives. Rainwater capture. There are many things that should come before desalination, because it has the worst impacts on the atmosphere and on the ocean.”

And yet the administration of Newsom, who sells himself as an environmentalist and conservationist, seems hell-bent on promoting the Huntington Beach desalination plant — carrying water, so to speak, for well-connected corporate power player Poseidon Water.

Remember the big flap over Newsom attending that French Laundry birthday party without wearing a mask, while his message to all of us was to mask up and stay home?

The bigger story, laid out with surgical skill by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boxall, was that the birthday boy was a Poseidon Water lobbyist.

The adage about following the money serves us well here. As Boxall reported after digging through records, Poseidon has spent $839,000 on lobbying for this project, with $575,000 of that sum going to Axiom Advisors. And who is a principal at that lobbying firm? Jason Kinney, the French Laundry birthday boy and a pal of Newsom.

Meanwhile, emails reveal that Poseidon has inserted itself into staff review of the project, so much so that it’s fair to ask if state regulators are doing their jobs or rolling over.

Five years ago, I went to Huntington Beach to meet with local foes of the project, and they made a compelling case for their opposition. They argued that there was no particular need for desalination at this location, where studies had determined that water supplies were projected to be plentiful for years thanks to aquifer maintenance and conservation practices.

They also pointed out that no buyer for the desalinated water had been lined up, which is still the case. And they argued that despite mitigation plans by Poseidon, sucking water out of the ocean would have a significant impact on microscopic marine life, and that because desalination plants burn megawatts of electricity, the project would be counterproductive to the state’s carbon control objectives.

So why go ahead with it?

There’s no good reason other than corporate profiteering at public expense. Poseidon saw an ocean of money, and the state has done nothing but clear the way for the company to cash in.

To move forward, Poseidon would need approval from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. So it was inconvenient for Poseidon when some board members last summer began asking all the obvious questions, and one of them asking the toughest questions was William von Blasingame, whose term was about to expire.

So was he reappointed to a new term?

Of course not.

Von Blasingame told me he began hearing rumors that he would get dumped — the governor is responsible for appointing members to the board — and his suspicions were confirmed in October. That’s when the Newsom administration announced it would replace him with a member of the Tustin City Council who, by the way, had received campaign contributions from pro-Poseidon labor groups.

Poseidon and the governor’s office defend their actions.

“We are proud of the transparent and inclusive process and look forward to the regional board’s adoption of a permit,” Poseidon vice president Scott Maloni told The Times. With a decision expected this spring, we’ll soon know if that’s true.

Newsom’s office said his administration carefully reviews all board appointments and believes the person who replaced von Blasingame “will represent her community’s interests in decision-making on the board.” As for desalination, the administration said the governor is determined to ensure “the sustainability of California’s water supplies” as “climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.”

But von Blasingame insisted the project isn’t needed and could end up costing ratepayers a fortune. He estimated that water bills could see a $15 monthly spike.

“When you’re a governor, you sometimes have to say no to your friends,” he told me.

Sean Bothwell of California Coastkeeper Alliance said the plan for Poseidon to produce 50 million gallons of water per day is massive and unnecessary at that location but that smaller operations are not being given consideration in a project driven by “corporate greed.”

Jordan said the state is ignoring its own carefully crafted desalination standards and allowing Poseidon to “supersize” the plant and maximize profits. Newsom, she said, “should be pushing them to do the right thing, and he’s facilitating them to do the wrong thing.”

If the project gets regional approval, it will go before the California Coastal Commission, where five board seats will be up for appointment in the coming months — with Newsom controlling one of those seats, and legislative leaders holding four cards.

Jordan said she’ll be watching closely.

Knowing what’s at stake, and what kind of game is being played in Sacramento, so will a lot of us.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.