A proposed ballot measure that would dedicate $100 billion to bolster California’s water supply is drawing a sharp rebuke, not only for the amount of spending but also for the dramatic sidesteps it would allow in the environmental review process.
For example, the proposal would make the controversial plan for a Huntington Beach desalination plant eligible for a huge taxpayer subsidy — even though the private, for-profit Poseidon Water company currently intends to pay for the $1.4 billion in construction costs.
If the Coastal Commission rejects the pending permit application for the Poseidon project, a single gubernatorial appointee — the Secretary for Natural Resources — could override any decision and grant the permit, according to the ballot proposal.
Such an override could happen even if the commission rejects Poseidon’s project before the November election, when the measure would appear on the ballot. If approved by voters, the initiative would apply retroactively to September 1, 2021. That means Poseidon could appeal any prior decision to the Newsom administration, which is considered friendly to the desalination proposal.
Additionally, the secretary of natural resources could amend any conditions imposed by the regulatory agency, replacing them with “conditions that the Secretary may determine, in the Secretary’s sole discretion, are appropriate.” Also, the proposed ballot measure would limit legal challenges to approved water projects.
These provisions could apply to most major water projects in the state, including reservoirs, aquifers, aqueducts and recycling systems as well as desalination plants.
Proponents of the ballot measure argue that the state’s vulnerability to drought is compounded by inadequate infrastructure, and that more money and streamlining environmental reviews are needed to correct that. The measure would require 2% of the state’s general fund — an estimated $4 billion annually — be spent on water projects, regardless of revenue shortfalls or other demands on the budget.
“Building a diverse and reliable water supply for today and (for) future generations requires innovation, and will undoubtedly engender opposition,” said Steve Sheldon, president of the Orange County Water District and one of five listed sponsors of the ballot measure. The district would be the principal purchaser of Poseidon water and has agreed to tentative terms for a contract if the project wins regulatory approval.
Three of the proposed ballot measure’s five main sponsors have indicated support for the Poseidon project in the past. In addition to Sheldon, former Orange County Water District board member Shawn Dewane has voted in favor of tentative contract terms with Poseidon and ballot proponent Edward Ring, co-founder of the conservative California Policy Center, has written in favor of the Poseidon project for the online California Globe as recently as March.
The two other sponsors represent farming and dairy interests, which have been among those hardest hit by the drought.
The proposal’s annual funding commitment would continue until annual water supplies increase by 5 million acre feet annually. An acre foot is enough to serve two to three households. It’s estimated it would take 25 years to reach that goal.
The proposal would modify the state’s constitution, replacing some existing elements of the document. But before voters get a shot at it, proponents must gather nearly 1 million valid signatures by May 2 to quality for the ballot. Ring estimated proponents would need to raise $5 million or more to collect the required signatures, but said his group — More Water Now — was confident in its fundraising capabilities.
A range of environmentalists are disturbed by the proposed initiative, saying the rollback of environmental protections could have a negative impact on habitat throughout California, from the mountains to the ocean.
“This would be one of the most devastating measures ever for the state, in terms of the environment and environmental justice,” said Andrea Leon-Grossman of the environmental justice group Azul.
Ross Middlemiss of the Center for Biological Diversity said the measure “would incentivize the wrong kind of projects” by diluting environmental safeguards and focusing on storage, while limiting conservation allocations to 20% of the 5 million-acre-foot goal.
“The measure prioritizes outdated and environmentally destructive dam projects such as Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir off the Sacramento River,” Middlemiss said. “California doesn’t need more costly, inefficient, inequitable and environmentally catastrophic storage projects. We must focus on conservation and efficiency.”
But coastal environmentalists, who’ve been battling the Poseidon proposal for years, are especially up in arms.
“This would really leave our coast vulnerable to corporations and profiteers,” said Mandy Sackett of the Surfrider Foundation. “It would remove regulatory authority from the agencies that have expertise and put it in the hands of one person, who is appointed by the governor, and has the possibility of becoming politicized.”
In addition to concerns that the Poseidon plant would kill marine organisms, opponents argue the additional water isn’t needed in the region and would cost considerably more than existing water sources. The Orange County Water District, Poseidon’s prospective public partner, serves 2.5 million residents in the north and central part of the county, and manages the large groundwater basin that provides the area with most of its water.
Opponents also point to a 2018 study by the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which manages water imported into the county. That report found in the best-case scenario, the Orange County Water District’s distribution area would never be short of water and wouldn’t need the desalter plant, thanks in part to its groundbreaking Groundwater Replenishment Program, which pumps highly filtered wastewater into its groundwater basin for use as potable water.
In the worst-case scenario, the district would be short 22,000 acre feet during an extremely dry year. However, tentative contract terms call for the district to buy 56,000 acre feet a year. And Poseidon, for its part, has said a smaller project would not be economically feasible. The desalted water has been pegged at $1,800 an acre foot, while imported water costs $1,100 and local groundwater costs about $600.
While some environmentalists oppose any new desalination plants in the state, others are more selective. For instance, Orange County Coastkeeper opposes the Poseidon project but has endorsed a much smaller desalter proposed near Doheny State Beach. And the Surfrider Foundation opposes the Poseidon project but is neutral on Doheny.
Both groups note that Doheny proposal uses ocean-water intake technology that is far less harmful to marine life — technology that Poseidon says is not feasible in Huntington Beach. Additionally, the southern part of the county is almost entirely dependent on imported water while the area that would be served Poseidon imports only about 20% of its supply.
The Coastal Commission, meanwhile, has said that desalination has a role in meeting the state’s future water needs, but is none too pleased with the ballot proposal’s effort to neuter its authority.
“This is an insidious maneuver that could allow wealthy corporations to overturn Coastal Commission actions protecting California’s precious coastal resources, public access and coastal communities,” said Jack Ainsworth, the commission’s executive director. “Drought in California is our new normal. And the commission understands that responsibly designed desalination facilities will be an important part of California’s water portfolio going forward.
“(But) we don’t need to gut the Coastal Act in order to provide safe, reliable, affordable drinking water.”
Proponents stand firm
Proponent Ring brushes aside environmentalists’ concerns, saying the scenarios they portray are unlikely even though they’re provided for in the proposed ballot measure.
He said state Water Commission would be unlikely to fund projects that already had construction costs covered, such as Poseidon. And any override of the Coastal Commission by the secretary of natural resources would have to be supported by environmental documentation.
“The Coastal Commission has a reputation of being hard to work with,” Ring said. “What the environmentalists are concerned about is that somebody hostile to the them would get in (office) and overturn it. But that person would have to say why and base it on environmental findings.”
The retroactive clause for overriding the commission’s decision was a result of not wanting to oppose “an arbitrary deadline” for the provisions, he said.
The measure would also restrict the commission from requesting supplemental environmental review in addition to studies approved initially approved by the lead agency. In the case of Poseidon, the city of Huntington Beach is the lead agency and most recently approved an environmental impact report for the plant in 2010.
Ring noted that the Coastal Commission can participate in the environmental review process performed by the lead agency. He added that any restrictions on the commission calling for addition review “would avoid delays associated with ‘recreating the wheel’ late in the permitting process.”
However, Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network said that a lot can change by the time a project reaches the Coastal Commission, offering the example of projections for rising seas that have grown since the city approved Poseidon’s project. Additionally, she said, the ballot proposal could render information such as newly discovered earthquake faults off limits for consideration by the commission.
Ring took issue with another environmental claim — that additional water storage would jeopardize river habitat — by pointing to a 2017 study from the Public Policy Institute of California that said the Sacramento River Delta averaged 11 million acre feet of uncaptured flow annually that was not needed to maintain ecosystems.
And he emphasized the possibility of the rest of the state following Orange County’s lead in recycling wastewater into potable water, saying the could produce 2 million acre feet annually at a cost of $15 billion to $20 billion. That would account for 40% of the ballot measure’s goal of 5 million additional acre feet of water annually.
“We don’t really need desalination to get the 5 million acre feet, in my opinion,” Ring said. “But that decision goes to the Water Commission.”