Poseidon update: OCWD “just sticks the tip in…”

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“Just the tip” of a Poseidon missile, circa 1974.

So, cut to the chase you say – what happened Wednesday night at the OCWD meeting on entering into contract negotiations with Poseidon?  Fair enough, I’ll tell you right up front.  All ten directors EXCEPT JAN FLORY went ahead and voted to:

  1. “Direct staff to begin negotiating a term sheet with Poseidon Resources to purchase the 56,000 acre-feet per year of water created by the Huntington Beach Ocean Desalination project,” and
  2. “Report back to the Board no later than the March 18, 2015 Board meeting on the progress of the negotiations.”

Most of the directors casting yea votes accompanied that vote with a lengthy self-exculpatory ramble on how they really did have concerns about this aspect and that aspect, but not to worry, nothing was set in stone yet, this was just moving forward VERY CAREFULLY, and they would have to negotiate to see what exactly they would end up with.  (Shades of Pelosi’s unfortunate “have to pass the bill to see what’s in it.”)

I’d already seen that exact thing so many times by 2013, in my watching county government agencies trying to gradually sneak in unpopular programs, that I wrote a story about the phenomenon called “The Camel’s Nose in the Tent.”  My good-government pal Dave Zenger, who worked for the county till being fired for excessive honesty, told me, “It’s called INCREMENTALIZATION, Vern, a sort of inertial force in corporate activity, and a gathering of momentum in which the implausible eventually becomes the inevitable.”

Well, the camel’s nose metaphor is getting kind of stale, so today I’m going to go with teen sex lore – the guy who tells the girl, “Don’t worry, I’ll just stick the TIP in.  It won’t hurt, and you won’t get pregnant.”  Last night, the OCWD told us exactly that story about Poseidon, just as the OCTA has told us that about the Disney Streetcar, just as the Anaheim kleptos told their people that about their Angels Stadium giveaway MOU to Arte Moreno.

And it’s alarming, when you consider the size of EVEN JUST THE TIP of a Poseidon missile (above and right.)  This metaphor is apt partly because of the obsolete 70’s-era technology this company insists on sticking us with, and also because of the way it will affect us all once it gets in PAST the tip – the BILLION DOLLAR COST, the bonds taken out on OUR triple-A credit, the $180 million down payment coming from US, the 30-year commitment to buy the expensive water when we need it and when we don’t, and the resulting huge cost increase in our water bills – possibly up to 4 times what we’re paying now, but at least twice as much (it’s impossible to say exactly.)

Brothers and sisters, WE ARE GOING TO FEEL THAT.


Some Interesting Things Some Directors Said. 

Denis Bilodeau, responding to the numerous critics who asked “Why pick Poseidon over some more qualified or honest firm?” pointed out “Poseidon has something no other firm has – twelve successful permits for this project.  If we suddenly dumped them and went with someone else, well… we’d be just sitting here again in fifteen years doing the same thing, without a desal plant.”

And this would be a problem how?  If it had been a dialogue I would have responded that all the experts say we’re okay for at least another 35 years.   Harry Sidhu chimed in that with a delay like 10 or 15 years we’d be talking much higher construction costs, which may be true, but a LOT of unpredictable things will be very different by then – we’re also bound to have much better technology, quite possibly less expensive to create and use.

Doing Yoh-man service!

Roger Yoh surprised us and got the only smattering of non-Flory applause when he said he didn’t like the idea of OCWD taking on all the risk in the deal, and would insist that Poseidon took at least some of it.  But will Roger stick to that position when push comes to shove, and will enough of his colleagues join him?  Many of them said they didn’t like the idea of their constituents paying unnecessarily higher water rates … and yet, they just keep following this Pied Piper.

Jan Flory took her famous “What do we need Poseidon for?” question to the next level, suggesting (after some head-fake flattery of the “charming and handsome Scott Maloni”) that if the OCWD could build its own celebrated Groundwater Reclamation System it could also build its own Desalination Plant.  Hell yeah, sure, why not – the Board seems all ready to take out a billion dollar loan as it is – why NOT do it ourselves and take out the need for profit?  But of course, only once we determine that we really need that and need it now.

Naturally Flory’s sensible but iconoclastic talk got no support on the dais.

The Miracle of the Public Comments.

The place would have been standing room only with overflow HAD ONLY POSEIDON OPPONENTS SHOWED UP, there were that many of us.  As it was, it was even worse, with DOZENS OF POSEIDON SHILLS (who usually don’t bother coming) there to show their fealty and reap their rewards, pushing some of us out into the corridor where we could neither hear nor see.  I’m talking:

  • Politicians bought and paid for by Poseidon.  Potato-like Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff.*  Slick Assemblyman Travis Allen.  Reptilian Westminster councilman Tyler Diep.  Two of HB’s own brand-new “Chamber Three” – Barbara “Pave it” Delgleize, and Four-flushin’ Billy O’Connell.  Doubtless more that I didn’t notice or can’t quickly make up nicknames for.
  • Leaders and reps of all the unions who hope to get work from the boondoggle, temporary as it will be:  all the Building TradesTeamster leaders Patrick Kelly and Ernesto Medrano, both of whom seem to pop up any time a project materializes that is terrible for the public but offers some slim hope of a few union jobs.
  • Also ubiquitous whenever a “public-private partnership” scam is in the works to bleed us taxpayers:  the OC Business Council, OC TAX, and the HB Chamber of Commerce.
  • Representatives of several businesses who seem likely to profit as Poseidon vendors or contractors.
  • And my favorite, the three sullen young college students (interns?) apparently recruited either by Brett Barbre or consultant Brian Lochrie, who show up every time and mumble off some script about how important desalination is “to our generation and future generations” and how they “enthusiastically support this project,” and then slump off to hover near the Poseidon crowd till they’re allowed to go home.

But none of that is the Miracle yet. The Miracle happened after new Board chairwoman Cathy Green finished reading off a little stack of letters of support from groups and folks who couldn’t be there (including Matt Harper) and called up the public commenters.   The Miracle was that, even though several opponents had gotten there and turned in their cards before any boosters, and the cards should have been pretty shuffled up between pro and con, the FIRST TWENTY-FOUR SPEAKERS WERE ALL IN FAVOR, each giving similar short bland rah-rah talks about how we need the water and we need the jobs.  And the rest of us – the vast majority – had to wait an hour to have our say.  And the Board swore it was pure accident!

It reminded me of the first scene of the great tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which you MUST see if you haven’t) where the Gary Oldman character flips a coin over a hundred times and it always comes up heads, while the Tim Roth character looks on first in irritation, then bafflement, then terror.

When we Poseidon critics finally got to speak, we were outraged, and wasted much of our precious three minutes complaining about this Miracle, which Chairman Green swore that she could not explain (although a friend did notice her shuffling through the speaker cards early on.)   This is really not a petty complaint, as several Poseidon opponents who’d come out at 5:30 to speak had to get back home before being called up a few hours later – including the celebrated water guru Connor Everts, who had driven all the way from Santa Monica to help fight the monstrosity.

Director Vince Sarmiento, a smooth-talking Santa Ana lawyer and councilman, apologized but also made the reasonable point, “When I’m making an argument, I generally PREFER to go last.”  True that, but still, when my turn came I bitched, “I guess those politicians’ and other boosters’ time is just more valuable than ours, so now they’ve all gone home to watch Criminal Minds.”  (It WAS Wednesday night.)

And good old Bobbi Ashurst shouted out from the back:  “They coulda just stayed HERE and watched it.”

There were a LOT of great opposition speakers, but I only want to mention two here:  I was happy to see attorney and conservative council candidate Sean Paden (left) who had come all the way down from Fullerton, partly at the behest of Republican councilman Bruce Whitaker, to thank Jan Flory (D) for sticking up for taxpayers, and to lecture the rest of the board on the evils of crony capitalism.  Good bipartisan stuff.

And my new friend Bruce Wareh made a point that some of us had thought but none had articulated:  Everyone has been asking for this to be delayed a few years so that we can see how Poseidon’s Carlsbad project turns out, but Bruce turned that around, suggesting that the reason OUR project is being rushed through is to get it done BEFORE Carlsbad inevitably fails.  (And we ARE getting bad news from Carlsbad already, which I’ll put in another story.)

Steve Sheldon’s Pet Peeves

Director Steven Sheldon (who was no plumper than usual but more florid than ever – seriously, check your blood pressure brother!) has many pet peeves.  And most of them have to do with us public speakers.  And even though he was ostentatiously scrolling through his smart phone during much of our speaking, he still noticed quite a bit of our misbehavior.  We are rude.  We need to follow rules.  Not talk a second past our three minutes.  If we don’t get our card in on time, don’t demand to speak!  (That’s a brand new rule one of their old rules they just decided to enforce, by the way.)

He informed us that, at a San Diego County Supervisors meeting, if you go over your 3-minute limit, an ARMED San Diego Sheriff will brusquely escort you out!  And he sounded like he wished we had a little of that discipline here!

And most eccentrically – I think this speaks more to Sheldon’s peculiar psychology than anything else – we need to decide WHAT SORT OF POSEIDON CRITIC EACH OF US REALLY IS, and STICK with that!  Are you an environmental critic?  If so, then it’s disingenuous of you to bring up fiscal concerns.  Do you live in Southeast HB and don’t want the plant in your neighborhood?  Well, that’s understandable but you’re not thinking of the greater good.  And if you are really a fiscal critic, then don’t muck up your argument with environmental concerns.  There are three different kinds of critics, don’t you see, and if you try to be more than one you are only “throwing things at the wall to see what will stick.”

In Sheldon’s sclerotic mind, an environmentalist can’t care about or understand economics;  and a fiscal conservative probably doesn’t really care about the ocean getting fucked up.  Sheldon has three boxes for us, and we each have to decide which one we belong in and STAY THERE so he can slam a lid shut on it.  What a guy…

And seriously, check that blood pressure dude.


 * Correction – I heard Bob Huff’s name announced when I was out in the corridor;  turns out he only sent a rep.

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.