A virtually unlimited water supply sits just to the left of California, there for the taking, as William Mulholland might say. But this state has little appetite for useful projects. The ambitious and enterprising Mulholland wouldn’t recognize it.
Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Poseidon Water announced its intention to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. In 2019, it appeared the $1.4-billion project – expected to provide drinking water to 100,000 Orange County households – was “headed for a key approval.” It would be the second location in the state turning ocean water into fresh water, the first being the Claude “Bud” Lewis Desalination Plant in Carlsbad, which opened in 2015. Also a Poseidon property, that facility delivers about 50 million gallons a day, roughly a third of San Diego County’s overall production, to 400,000 users.
This is California, though, where water problems are chronic and self-inflicted, and solutions are treated as nuisances.
According to the media, the Huntington Beach site “failed a crucial regulatory hurdle” in late April, “possibly dooming a project that had been promoted as a partial solution for sustained drought.”
The California Coastal Commission staff claimed the facility would be “more susceptible to sea-level rise than was understood when it was first proposed,” Reuters reports. It “also deemed the project harmful to nearby fish and bird habitat, said the ground beneath the plant posed a seismic risk, and that the higher cost of the plant’s water would squeeze low-income consumers.”
While the commission’s 12-member board could overrule the staff’s recommendation to sink Poseidon, no one should count on that happening. There’s a good reason the Coastal Commission has a reputation for being anti-growth, anti-progress, and a serial violator of property rights.
Should the commissioners act as their history suggests they will, it will be another example, says Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jeffrey W. McCoy, of the agency “pulling the rug out from under a project.”
“The company worked for years to create a plan to provide water to growing Orange County and to ensure the project was safe and environmentally friendly,” McCoy continued. “The governor supported the project. But the commission, based on its staff’s pure speculation about the project, may prevent it.”
The PFL has had a similar experience defending property owners who want to build three homes on vacant lots in Carmel Point from overactive government.
“Our clients spent a lot of money ensuring that their project wouldn’t impact any archeological artifacts. They got approval from the county. And then, the commission denied their plans because they could not be 100% certain about the impacts of the houses,” said McCoy.
Even in the unlikely event that the commissioners overrule the staff, the plant, which Poseidon has reportedly invested $100 million in, might still be doomed by other roadblocks.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has “declared a Water Shortage Emergency.” For “the first time ever” it’s implementing an “Emergency Water Conservation Program,” requiring “member agencies in State Water Project-dependent areas,” where 6 million live, to restrict outdoor watering to just one day a week.
It’s just the latest in a number of rules issued over the years to limit water use in a state where drought has become perpetual.
Life doesn’t have to be this way in California. There’s enough water to meet demand. But it’s the life policymakers and regulators, supported by a majority of voters, have chosen. Scarcity is a conscious choice in a modern, prosperous economy, not the result of a random run of bad luck.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.