California regulators on Thursday will vote on whether to approve a proposed $1.4 billion plant to convert seawater to drinking water, a project billed as a partial solution to a sustained drought that threatens the state’s economic health.
In deciding the fate of the Huntington Beach desalination plant, the California Coastal Commission must weigh an expert recommendation to kill the project against pressure from Governor Gavin Newsom to approve it. The vote will follow a hearing at a Costa Mesa hotel conference room.
The plant, proposed by Poseidon Water, a company controlled by the infrastructure arm of Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management (BAMa.TO), would convert enough Pacific Ocean water into drinking water for 400,000 people. But staff experts at the Coastal Commission said the process would harm marine life and nearby bird habitat while producing water that would be costly for low-income consumers.
The staff recommendation for denial also said the plant would be vulnerable to flooding from rising sea levels that are expected from human-influenced climate change.
Environmentalists have long campaigned against the plant, saying desalination decimates ocean life, costs too much money and energy, and soon would be made obsolete by water recycling.
Days after the staff recommendation was published last month, Newsom spoke in favor of the project, telling the editorial board of the Bay Area News Group that rejecting the project would be “a big mistake, a big setback.” He said California has experienced severe drought in seven of the past 10 years.
The drought has threatened the vibrancy of California’s $3 trillion economy, most directly affecting the $50 billion agriculture industry, but also acting as a drag on energy production and tourism.
Newsom, who is up for re-election this year with the drought on many Californians’ minds, appoints four of the 12 voting members of the commission and can remove them at any time.
Poseidon has campaigned to get the project built in Huntington Beach, about 30 miles (50 km) south of Los Angeles, for more than 20 years, saying it has spent more than $100 million in the process.
Since 2015, Poseidon has operated a similar plant, the largest in the United States, down the coast in Carlsbad.
The Carlsbad project, which turns ocean water to drinking water in 90 minutes, was built on more elevated land and approved before statewide regulations governing desalination plants came into effect.
The company says rejecting the plant would sound “the death knell for desalination in California.”