by John Earl, cross-posted from Surf City Voice.
Centuries ago, explorers sailed Poseidon’s Seven Seas looking for beautiful mermaids and lands full of golden treasures.
Although some of the hapless adventurers may have found what they were looking for, those who didn’t drink too much seawater were usually disappointed.
Today, it looks like Poseidon, the God of the Sea, is up to his old tricks again.
This time, taking corporate form (same as being human under American law), he’s promising to build a new source of water – an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach – that will create an additional and reliable supply of water for the Orange County Water District’s ratepayers.
At least that’s what most people think he is promising.
But is he?
Any proposed deal between the OCWD and Poseidon Resources Inc. to build an ocean desalination plant will depend upon a subsidy of $400 million, doled out to Poseidon for a 15-year-period, courtesy of water ratepayers throughout Southern California.
The OCWD manages the Santa Ana River Groundwater Basin, which supplies over 70 percent of the drinking water for Central and North Orange County.
The desalination plant would turn about 56,000 acre feet of seawater into drinking water every year.
Poseidon and OCWD officials are currently negotiating a contract to build and operate the $1 billion plant, but one detail is 100 percent certain: no subsidy, no project, say Poseidon CEOs.
The subsidy would have to be approved by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and funneled through its Local Resources Program (LRP).
Under currently proposed terms, OCWD would be required to buy all 56,000 acre feet of Poseidon’s water every year for 50 years at rates three or more times higher than imported water the District currently buys from the MET for basin replenishment.
But there is a misunderstanding about the supposed benefits of the Poseidon project by some members of the OCWD Board of Directors and other project supporters: they believe that it creates a larger and more reliable water supply for residents living in OCWD’s region.
But the strings attached to the LRP subsidy would make Poseidon’s increased water supply as hard to find as the water spirit in Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid.
The Municipal Water District of Orange County’s top engineer, Karl Seckel, the acknowledged expert on MET policies, explained the eligibility requirements, strings and all, to the Surf City Voice by email, quoted here in part:
“Any project that produces potable supplies qualifies because as long as the supply is produced it will result in offsetting a potable demand on MET.”
OCWD’s imported water “demands” that have to be offset include MET water purchased directly by OCWD or separately by any of its 19 [water agency] members, Seckel said.
“Even though OCWD purchases vary from year to year, they are always greater than the 56,000 AF being considered by the Poseidon project”, he added.
[Seckel’s complete email was subsequently included with OCWD’s final report on the conclusions of its Ocean Desalination Citizens Advisory Committee.]
In other words, there will be no net gain of water supply for OCWD from the Poseidon project, as OCWD’s Director of Engineering, John Kennedy, made clear to Director Stephen Sheldon who seemed to suggest otherwise at a board meeting in July, 2014.
Poseidon’s water “introduces more water to the region, has an overall net effect of pumping up our reliable supply in addition to what’s being produced”, Sheldon postulated at that meeting.
“Well, no,” Kennedy answered. “It is increasing the water that the region will have so that it is improving our reliability, but it’s not increasing the amount of groundwater.”
The “region” of increased water reliability that Kennedy refers to is outside of the OCWD service area (conceivably including South Orange County which imports virtually all of its water) where water reliability will be increased by the freed-up and cheaper (MET) imported water that OCWD will replace with desalinated water.
In effect, outside water agencies will receive a generous subsidy for MET’s cheaper water, courtesy of OCWD’s ratepayers, a fact that Peer Swan, a director at the Irvine Ranch Water District, has pointed out for years to deaf ears, starting with a Surf City Voice story in 2011.
Like the sailors of mermaid mythology, who sailed their ships into the rocks by following a beautiful illusion, OCWD’s water board may yet find that Poseidon’s promise has lead them astray.