Garden Grove Poseidon Update – PHAN is the MAN… who stopped this and needs to start it again!

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phan poseidon

I always thought of Garden Grove Councilman Chris Phan as an honest, trustworthy Republican politician, and wrote nice things about him when he ran for Supervisor.  He would be the de facto swing vote on council for or against approving a resolution against the Poseidon desal plant.  Two meetings ago he joined the majority in asking for the resolution (and harsh letter to OCWD member Dina Nguyen) to be rewritten and toned down a little.  And this was done, very well.  (I’ll reprint the new statement below.)

A day before last Tuesday’s meeting Mr Phan told me plainly (by Facebook message) that he was going to support the re-written resolution/letter (which has sort of morphed into one thing.)  Then Tuesday night he pulled the rug out from under us, praising the resolution but refraining from passing it because “It’s too early, there’s still time.”  WTF?  If you agree with what’s in that resolution (below) then NOW is the time to weigh in on the Poseidon term sheet, NOT later when it has gathered so much institutional momentum that it’s inevitable.

I asked him later that night, WHEN will be the correct time, and will YOU be the one to bring it back?  (Since long-suffering Mayor Bao Nguyen has done it twice and been let down both times.)  He responded “will see, but I will be tracking the project closely.”  I sure hope so, because I will be tracking Councilman Phan closely, and I hope I’m not wrong about him being the sort of Republican politician that we can trust.

The other two Republicans on council have sort of done what I’d expected from them, and not disqualified themselves from generous Poseidon contributions for their future political ambitions.  Steve Jones is simply the kind of businessman/politician you would EXPECT to love the Poseidon boondoggle – a developer who sees nothing wrong with the Garden Grove ratepayer subsidizing more development down south of Irvine;  a close friend of Lou Correa’s;  and a driving force behind Garden Grove’s very thirsty new water park, the Great Wolf Lodge.  Phat Bui, an ardent and devoted lover of his own voice, cast doubt on so many facts in GG water staff’s report (“I don’t know if THIS is true.  And I don’t know if THIS is true.  And I cannot sign my name to THAT statement…”) that Debbie Cook was reminded of the classic 2012 Rex Huppke essay “The Death of Facts.”  (Please read if you haven’t.)

The two Democrats, Mayor Bao Nguyen and Councilman Kris Beard, were stalwart and sensible Poseidon opponents, looking out for their constituents’ pocketbooks and the county’s precious shoreline.  But they were not the only Democrats in the house:

Young Dems For Sale…

At the previous meeting, it was the OC Young Democrats’ (OCYD) new chairman Jonathan Barba who sat in the back left corner with the Poseidon veep, consultants and lobbyists, and came up to the podium to express his group’s support for the Poseidon project and to repeatedly chant the words “Do-All Approach” in the hope that would stick, and help his powerful new friends.

Jonathan "Jonny" Barba, new OCYD chair.

Jonathan “Jonny” Barba, new OCYD chair.

This last meeting, the OCYD were represented by a girl maybe 19 whom I won’t name, who introduced herself as the “chair of the OCYD’s environmental and natural resources committee,” and assured us, with all her great authority, that the environmental impacts of the proposed plant had been vastly exaggerated by everyone else.  For one thing, the open intakes – which (at the current electrical plant) have been slaughtering millions of fish larvae for decades, and which the Coastal Commission wants phased out but Poseidon plans on using for another half-century – according to this young scientist, these intakes actually kill “less fish per day than are caught on the HB Pier.”   Her answer to concerns over the brine plume?  “Look over there – heavy metals are worse!”  (Seriously, video below.)

How does she and her committee know all this counterintuitive information which flies in the face of all other environmental study?  So glad you asked – they have been studying Poseidon’s environmental impacts for an ENTIRE TWO MONTHS – and that’s not all – they’ve been studying in partnership with OC Water Independence, Sustainability and Efficiency (OC WISE.)

Sulnick jokes at a recent water meeting: "I was just going to make up an answer!"

Sulnick jokes at a recent water meeting: “I was just going to make up an answer!”

Wow.  Did this young environmentalist, do OCYD, know what readers of this blog already know, that OC WISE is a classic and recently formed ASTROTURF group, led by admitted Poseidon consultant and sometime “environmental attorney” Robert Sulnick, with a website registered by the wife and boss of Poseidon’s main consultant?  Apparently not.  Does this youngster even know the meaning of “astroturf” and “greenwashing?”  Apparently not, from the blank stare I got back from her.  Does she see how this is a problem?  Again, NOT.

I don’t want to pick on this girl, who may be just going through a phase.  In fact I believe her talk was written by Sulnick, I recognized sentences from one of his recent columns.  And on that note, real chickenhawk move Mr. Sulnick sending this girl out with that “fishing on the Pier” line to get laughed at.

Is this normal or proper anyway, for such an important sector of the local Democrat Party to work so symbiotically with a (to say the least) very controversial corporation?  I don’t even see young Republicans doing that.  (And John Earl points out that it didn’t even occur to this Young Dem to utter a sentence or two in support of that evening’s other hot issue, which had brought out a gaggle of service union and immigrants’ rights people:  a resolution in support of President Obama’s immigration policies.)

Anyway, I’d promised to share Garden Grove’s improved letter, now addressed to the whole OCWD board, not just Dina.

The Garden Grove Letter to OCWD

RE: Opposition to Current Terms for Construction of the Poseidon Desalination Project.

Honorable President Green and Directors:

The city of Garden Grove respectfully opposes the current Term Sheet … While respectful of the Board’s efforts over many years to expand both the capacity and availability of water for GG residents and businesses, we believe your current position on the subject project is seriously flawed.   We believe it incumbent on us as the elected municipal leadership of GG to advise you of our opposition as well as to express our commitment to collaborate with you in identifying the most cost-effective, environmentally responsible alternatives in meeting OC’s water needs.

Garden Grove's Public Works Director Bill Murray, writer of the original resolution and letter, probably feeling like it's Groundhog Day again.

Garden Grove’s Public Works Director Bill Murray, author of the original resolution and letter, probably feeling like it’s Groundhog Day again.

Topping the list of our concerns is the extremely high cost to GG consumers the Poseidon Project represents.  Not only does the Term Sheet pose substantial increases in the cost of water to our residents and business community, it does so for the next 30 years.  Any decision by the Board to approve this project with costs in the range cited in the Term Sheet will burden ratepayers for decades.  It will adversely impact low and middle-income households alike as well as escalate costs for the business community.  Ratepayers will be saddled with these costs irrespective of water conservation efforts or the development of alternative water sources.

A second major concern is the lack of identified alternatives to desalination.  The OCWD has a long history of examining and implementing cost-effective means of providing water resources to OC.  We are at a loss to understand why you have not conducted a similar assessment of alternatives to desalination.  At a minimum, we would expect the same level of analysis that has been put into the feasibility of desalination to be applied to a range of alternatives.  These include but are not limited to expanding the recycled water system;  constructing additional measures within and adjacent to local storm channels allowing the infiltration of storm water into the basin;  purchasing MWDOC water during times of excess water availability and recharging the basin as well as the promotion of water conservation.  Absent such an analysis, it is impossible to know whether desalination is the soundest, long-term economic investment for OC.  Similarly, it is impossible to know whether the environmental implications of desalination are comparable to or greater than the range of alternatives available if those alternatives are not fully analyzed.

Turns out interim manager Allan Roeder (an old friend from Costa Mesa) wrote this revised letter.

Turns out interim manager Allan Roeder (an old friend from Costa Mesa) wrote this revised letter.

Finally, we believe it imperative that there be greater engagement of local public and private retail water purveyors, other public agencies (such as the OC Sanitation District and the OC Flood Control District), and consumers in assessing the full range of options including desalination.  The ultimate impact of desalination or any of the alternatives will impact everyone in OC.  Consequently, all of the stakeholders in providing water to the consumers must take an active role in the decision-making process.  In so stating, the city of GG readily acknowledges its prior decision to decline further participation in the Poseidon HB Ocean Desal Workgroup.  That decision was made based on the economics of desal and the lack of identified alternatives subjected to the same level of scrutiny.  The city of GG stands ready to resume an active, participatory role with the District if there is a receptiveness to consider all the alternatives on an equal basis.

In closing, it would be irresponsible of us not to acknowledge the critical water shortage facing all Californians.  While GG is fortunate to have access to the groundwater basin to meet the majority of our demands, we realize this is not the case for either OC or the state as a whole.   As a consequence we must all consider the “Big Picture” as well as our own local needs.  The Poseidon Desal project will not alter in any way the current water shortage, nor will any of the identified alternatives – except for greater conservation efforts.  GG water consumers are responding to this challenge as are hundreds of communities throughout the state.  The current drought should not be used as a basis for decision-making on a singular project which will have long time financial and environmental consequences.

We look forward to working with you to insure all alternatives – including desalination – are thoroughly evaluated on an equal basis to insure water resources for GG and all of OC in a cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner for the future.  If you wish to discuss this further, please do not hesitate to contact William Murray, Public Works Director…

Video of the meeting.

High points of public comments: Dina Nguyen (FINALLY attending a meeting and bitching about how mean Josh McIntosh and Mayor Bao are; she would like extra time because she is speaking for SO many Poseidon lovers – she does not get extra time. 1 hour 14 min.) The OCYD girl – 2 hours 27 min. MY speech (which I’ll re-type below because it was one of my better ones and everyone liked it – 2 hours 18 min.)

My speech!

Vern Nelson, Huntington Beach, Orange Juice Blog, water drinker.  I have to first respond to a few things a couple of the council members said at the last meeting.

First.  Mr. Bui and Mr. Jones both brought up the arguable fact that the term sheet with Poseidon is not final, not set in stone.  (I say “arguable” because OCWD Chairwoman Cathy Green has been going around talking like it IS finalized.)  Mr. Bui says we should wait and see how the final deal shapes up before we weigh in.

phat buiI know Mr. Bui is a smart guy, a science teacher I think, but still his logic here makes no sense to me, it’s backwards.  NOW is the time, BEFORE the deal is finalized, for a city like Garden Grove to weigh in, and make it known if they don’t like how the deal is shaping up.  Not later when it’s TOO LATE.  Of course that’s what Poseidon wants, but what sense does that make?  Like the Mayor said, you will AT LEAST give OCWD more bargaining power if you register your disapproval NOW.

Another thing Mr. Bui was wrong about:  he claimed that Water Board member Dina Nguyen is now in charge of representing the interests of the entire OCWD area now, not just Garden Grove ratepayers.  With respect, NO, Mr. Bui.   Representative democracy, sir, representative democracy!  The lovely Ms Dina is supposed to represent the interests of her constituents who elected her, most of them here in lovely Garden Grove.

Not that it matters that much, the proposed plant is bad for ALL of North and Central OC, the ratepayers who will have to pay extra money while not getting any actual new water, BUT making more MET water available to developers in arid, wasteful, South County.

steve jonesI also have to take exception to to Mayor Pro Tem Jones’ use of the word “conservative.”  The point he was making was he didn’t feel Garden Grove should take any leadership on a matter like this.  Why should we get out in front, he asked, why don’t we wait for some other cities to go first, find out what THEY think.  “We’ve always been a CONSERVATIVE city,” he said, “we don’t get out in front on things like this.”

No, I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, conservative does NOT mean sitting on your hands and doing nothing while waiting for some OTHER city council to look after their constituents’ interests first.  Conservative means not blowing gobs of public money on some hare-brained scheme like this.

I also got the chance to hear some of the public comments again, online.  There was one union leader, not Ernesto, some white guy from I think the electrical workers or something.  An entertaining speaker, a real raconteur.  I think he had just seen the movie San Andreas, and he told the tale of driving around Southern California, looking at our water infrastructure, and thinking of how an inevitable “TEN ON THE RICHTER SCALE” quake would destroy all that, and how we need Poseidon because of that.  (I don’t know why “ten” on the Richter scale, 7 or 8 would be scary enough.)

san andreas movieIn any case, this union leader either didn’t know, or chose not to mention, the fact that the proposed Poseidon plant would be located squarely on the Newport-Inglewood fault.  Don’t you think that sort of TOPPLES his case that Poseidon could be our insurance against seismic disaster?

Speaking of unions, I welcome all my union brothers and sisters who came out tonight, I sincerely believe that you’re the backbone of America.  I’d be honored to be a union member, but the Musicians’ Union sucks.

I have to say I don’t understand why your leaders push so hard for projects that don’t make any sense, like putting toll lanes on the 405 when building new free lanes would be just as much union work, or supporting boondoggles in Anaheim that don’t even have guarantees of union hires.

When Poseidon brings a bunch of union workers to a meeting like this, it’s because they’re getting desperate and trying to influence the Democrats on the dais.  But I hope you all know that we’re only talking about 25 permanent jobs at Poseidon;  a couple of thousand construction jobs, just off and on, piecemeal, for a couple of years.

Let me finish with a story (and I sure like having five minutes instead of three!)

Last time that there was a bunch of guys in hard hats and vests at a meeting like this was the spring meeting where the OCWD approved the Poseidon term sheet.  I went out for a smoke, and so did a young union worker.  A Latino fellow, 30 or so, from a neighboring county, I think a pipe-fitter.  We had a smoke together.

I asked him, what did your bosses tell you?  He said, they asked us to come out, to listen to everything because it affects us, and to speak if we wanted to.  That seemed reasonable enough.

So I asked, what do you think?  He surprised me:  “I listened to the whole presentation, and this is a ripoff, man.  This company is playing you guys for suckers.  I hope you all send them packing back to Connecticut.”  And he added, “Don’t worry about us, we’ll find work somewhere else.”  (It would have been great if he said all that at the podium, but probably a bad career move.)

And he was right – the Groundwater expansion is a lot of union work;  if we decided to build our own desal plant, it would be a lot of union work.  But I think we need to be looking at a different labor-intensive project:  We’ve got a huge El Niño season coming up this winter, and most of that water is gonna end up washing out to the ocean.  We need to get serious about Rainwater Capture.  But of course there’s no Connecticut hedge fund group hoping to make billions off Rainwater Capture, and there aren’t dozens of OC poiticians from both parties paid off by the Rainwater Capture industry.

[It’s probably just as well that I was cut off right around here, but the concluding paragraph will hopefully be usable in the near future – it’s up to the indecisive Chris Phan…]

Let me wrap up presumptuously by congratulating the city of Garden Grove for doing the CONSERVATIVE thing for your ratepayers, and approving this resolution against Poseidon.  Thank you for your courage, for showing the way to other OC cities, and for OPENING THE FLOOD GATES.

flood gates open

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer 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, or 714-235-VERN.