The Ideological War Behind the Proposed Huntington Beach Ocean Desalination Plant

By John Earl

Underlying the long-running battles between proponents and opponents of the proposed Poseidon Resources ocean desalination plant is an ideological war between two roughly defined factions: conservationists and free-marketeers.

The Orange County Water District(OCWD), which manages theSanta Ana River and the Orange County Groundwater Basin (a collection of aquifers containing 60 million acre-feet of water), is ground-zero in that war.

(The OCWD supplies 75 percent of the drinking water for 2.4 million residents of north Orange County)

The conservationists say that conservation is the most cost-effective way to provide a reliable water supply for the public.

They believe that ocean desalination should be a last resort and that with various forms of water conservation, as well as waste-water recycling, there is no need for the Poseidon project.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which provides imported water for the entire southern California region, will continue to be reliable, they say.

The conservationists have long advocated for quickly refilling the basin (still badly depleted due to the recent six-year drought) through combined pumping reductions and increased water imports.

No better time to do that than now, they say, after the extraordinary 2016–2017 wet season that left the MWD with more water than it can store.

The free-marketeers see conservation as a curse, not a solution to water shortages. The unhindered use of water is a basic right, they say, and water management agencies are obligated to supply as much water as possible for that purpose.

They argue that the Poseidon project would help fulfill that right while providing a reliable safety net against the ongoing threat of drought. The MWD might be unable to meet supply needs in the future, they claim.

But the two opposing factions, as represented over the years on the OCWD Board of Directors, have often been nebulous and contradictory in their actions, as demonstrated by recent votes the board cast on basin replenishment policy.

A “full” basin by OCWD standards actually calls for a 100,000–150,000 overdraft as a safety net against flooding from artesian springs caused by “too much” rain.

But excessive overdrafting creates serious management problems; wells become inoperable, water extraction requires deeper and more expensive pumping, and land subsidence occurs — allowing bad inland water or seawater to migrate into good aquifers.

Sustained over time, an overdraft of 500,000 acre-feet or more can lead to irreversible contamination of the basin’s water supply from seawater intrusion.

Most important, a severe basin overdraft combined with a severe drought could become a preventable fiasco affecting 2.4 million Orange County residents.

OCWD’s groundwater management plan calls for purchasing more imported water for the basin and/or decreased basin pumping during an overdraft of 300,000 to 350,000 acre-feet; an overdraft of 350,000 acre-feet calls for both measures.

But during the recent six-year drought, California’s worst in 1200 years, the OCWD Board of Directors allowed the basin overdraft to reach 390,000 acre-feet without taking remedial action. Instead, the board increased allowed pumping by its 19 member agencies and followed a lackluster approach toward replenishment.

Currently, after record southern California rainfall, the overdraft is at about 320,000 acre-feet.

Only after the MWD (flush with more water from the recent rains than it can store)offered to sell cut-rate water did the board take the aggressive approach to basin replenishment that the conservationists had advocated for years.

The newly adopted program could bring the overdraft down to 200,000 acre-feet within a year, according to OCWD staff who are still touching up the contract with MWD.

Since the end of World War II, the OCWD has balanced conservation with its goal of maximizing water sales, but conservation is often the word that dares not say its name — too much — at gatherings of Orange County water officials.

John Kennedy, OCWD’s chief engineer, demonstrated that ideological tilt in December of 2014, while speaking at a meeting of the Water Advisory Committee of Orange County, just after some heavy rain gave a respite from the drought:

“Most people look outside and they see wet stuff,” Kennedy said. “I look outside and I see green stuff falling from the heavens. Because our job is to collect this rain, put it in the groundwater basin, and then sell it to the cities.”