In summary

Poseidon Water Co. wants to build a desalination plant in Orange County and seeks a deal that would lock utility into buying their water for decades.

By Charming Evelyn, Special to CalMatters

Charming Evelyn is chair of the Water Committee and vice chair of the Environmental Justice Committee at Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, sc_acwatercom@outlook.com.

If there were any doubts remaining about whether California is getting hotter and drier, this summer has settled them. We’ve seen record-breaking temperatures and historic wildfires across the state. 

We know the warming climate is stressing our water system. But there is another, less visible threat that is also jeopardizing water access: rising rates that are making this basic necessity unaffordable for some families, and driving an increase in water shutoffs and utility debt. 

To make sure that all Californians can count on having water access now and in the future, we have to tackle the climate and affordability crises together, not fix one at the expense of the other. 

Unfortunately, some Wall Street water companies are trying to take advantage of California’s drought fears by pushing through overpriced and unnecessary water projects. Poseidon Water Co. is one of those companies. Poseidon has been working for years to build a seawater desalination plant in Orange County, seeking a deal that would lock the local utility into buying their water for decades, regardless of need.

Poseidon claims that the desalination plant would cost each customer $3 to $6 per month, but this increase would compound decades of rising rates that have made monthly bills a stretch for many people even before the pandemic caused widespread unemployment. 

The desalted seawater Poseidon wants to produce will be five times more expensive than the groundwater from the area’s well-managed aquifer, and twice the cost of imported water. There is no question we need to be planning ahead and maximizing local sources, but desalination is a bad deal for ratepayers. And not just from a financial standpoint.

The true cost of Poseidon’s plant includes its environmental impacts, like the damage its massive intake pipes will cause to sea life as they suck up tons of plankton, baby fish and eggs, along with seawater. The plant will also use a tremendous amount of energy, which means more greenhouse gas emissions, driving increased climate change and drought. 

This project doesn’t pencil out, but Poseidon isn’t relying on its merits. The company has waged a relentless lobbying and propaganda campaign to win approval. 

At Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board’s virtual hearing last month, I was one of 99 people representing more than 20 environmental and equity organizations that spoke against the proposal, far outnumbering the project’s supporters. Yet Poseidon’s lobbyist was given every chance to refute concerns, while we the people had to sit silently by and watch. 

Right now, Poseidon is pushing to get friendlier regulators appointed to the Santa Ana water board that must grant a permit for the plant to operate. They have tried to win friends at every level of government, even hiring former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer to help push their project. 

As a long-time community organizer, I want to see our water leaders put the needs of ordinary Californians first. That means rejecting any project that drives up rates so steeply in the name of so-called water security. The main threat to water security for working class Orange County residents is soaring costs, not limited supply. 

We know how to meet long-term water needs without sacrificing affordability: make wiser use and reuse of the water we have.

Orange County is already a leader in recycled water but can do more to stretch current supplies for a fraction of the cost of desalination. For example, cleaning up contaminated groundwater so it’s safe for drinking, greening our streets to catch more rainwater, and investing in more conservation education.

I am calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject pressure from Poseidon Water to replace William von Blasingame on the Santa Ana water board with someone more sympathetic to its proposal. We need water leaders who put consumers first and prioritize projects that are both climate-smart and cost-effective. 

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