“Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

One of the most famous and repeated lines in English Literature comes from the 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In this portion of the poem, the narrator is on a merchant vessel at sea. There is not a breath of wind and the sailors are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean bobbing in place and, despite being surrounded by thousands of miles of water, may die of thirst.

Similarly, in California we have a coastline with a near infinite water supply, yet we regularly we see battle lines drawn between the farmers in Central California who need water for their crops; the urban dense populace in Southern California who need water for their families; and the environmentalists who need water to protect endangered and threatened fish populations in our creeks and rivers.

While these factions battle over who gets the larger slice of the pie, no one ever thinks the answer might be to make the pie bigger so everyone’s slice is larger. 

Seawater desalination is a technology that has been used for decades on U.S. Naval ships and in arid countries sitting on the coast like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stated, “If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” President Kennedy would be proud to see that we have, in fact, achieved his goal. 

In Carlsbad, the Bud E. Lewis Seawater Desalination Plant, owned by Poseidon Water and built in 2015 by Kiewit and Shea under a Project Labor Agreement with the San Diego-Imperial Counties Building and Construction Trades Council currently produces 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water every day – over 75 billion gallons since 2015 – for San Diego County residents and businesses. And it is producing and delivering into homes and businesses this high quality water at an affordable cost of less than one penny per gallon. 

This project has been such a success story that while nearly every other part of the state is in the “red” zone for drought, San Diego County rests comfortably in the “yellow” zone because of the access they have to this drought-proof, climate resilient water supply.

Orange County has been eyeing the construction of a sister desalination plant since the late 1990’s. The project is proposed to be located on the same site where the AES Power Plant sits at PCH and Newland in the City of Huntington Beach. 

California’s regulatory process is notoriously slow and deliberate, but even by California’s standards, while the effort to get this needed water factory permitted have been exceptional but the progress has been slow. Often described as “two steps forward and one step back,” the project received its initial regulatory approvals in 2006 and again in 2010 with certified Environmental Impact Reports by the City of Huntington Beach.

Seawater Desalination will bring jobs, tax revenue & new water supply to Orange County

Since that time the project has been mired in a state regulatory process that makes the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine seem straightforward by comparison. The project has bounced from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to the Coastal Commission to the State Lands Commission, back to the Regional Water Board and now back to the State Lands Commission before finally concluding near the starting line at the Coastal Commission. The State Lands Commission meeting is expected in the late summer or early fall and the Coastal Commission hearing is expected late in 2021 or early in 2022. 

But through every step of the public hearing process, the Engineering Contractors Association along with the Pipefitters, Electricians and Labor Unions have stood up to be heard. Their voices have been full-throated and clear.

Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is expected to support an estimated 3,000 urgently needed jobs during its construction period, and an additional almost 300 permanent jobs once in operation.

These jobs are critically important as we emerge from a pandemic that has caused a spike in unemployment in California. These are good, high-paying jobs. In Orange County, the jobs supported during construction are expected to have an average compensation of $77,000 per year. This number almost doubles for the permanent jobs supported during operations which will have an average compensation of $130,000 per year.

Additionally, the infusion of private investment dollars into this water infrastructure project means millions in tax revenue will flow into Huntington Beach and the surrounding communities supporting local schools and enhancing the funding for parks, public safety and roads

Local governments that rely on sales and tourist dollars like Huntington Beach could be revenue strapped for years.

Thankfully, the project will contribute almost $9.0 million per year in property taxes, of which approximately $1.5 million annually will go to the City’s General Fund and can be used for police, fire and other public services. Approximately $3.7 million annually would go the Huntington Beach elementary and high school districts.

This would make the Huntington Beach Project the largest property taxpayer in the City of Huntington Beach and the 8th largest property taxpayer in Orange County. 

The $8.6 million in property taxes paid by the project within Orange County would represent an approximately 9.7% increase in the City of Huntington Beach property taxes and a 3.7% increase in the city’s total General Fund revenue.

And of course, there is the added benefit of making the “pie” bigger. This project will provide Orange County with nearly 20 billion gallons of drinking water annually from a source that was previously untapped. By adding a new climate resilient water supply to Orange County’s future, we can reduce our reliance on imported water and be more self-sufficient and sustainable locally. 

This project will free up imported water that can be used for other important priorities whether they be farming, fish or future regional growth.

The desalination process itself is proven and environmentally safe. It takes two gallons of seawater to make one gallon of drinking water. The water is drawn through pipes that run underneath the beach and out into the ocean more than a thousand feet. There are wedgewire screens with slots narrower than the width of a dime. While there are some environmental impacts related to microscopic plankton and fish eggs, no adolescent or adult fish or other marine life are impacted by the desalination process. 

The brine – or seawater with twice the salt content – that goes back out to the ocean is diffused and within 300 feet of the outfall pipe, the salinity levels are the same as they are elsewhere throughout the Huntington Beach coast.

To mitigate the minor impact of the microscopic sea life that does get drawn in past the wedgewire screens, Poseidon Water has committed to protecting and preserving the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Poseidon will also restore an artificial reef off of the coast in Palos Verdes. The marine life benefits of these projects are an order of magnitude greater than the environmental impacts this project will have. So, at the end of the day, this project will be a net environmental benefit to the community. This project will provide thousands of jobs, deliver millions in tax revenue and produce billions of gallons of water each year. All while protecting the environment and preserving the Bolsa Chica wetlands. 

There is indeed “water, water everywhere” along our coast. And if we have the political will to make it happen, it can be available for us to drink. 

All photos and cover: In Carlsbad, the Bud E. Lewis Seawater Desalination Plant, owned by Poseidon Water and built in 2015 by Kiewit and Shea under a Project Labor Agreement with the San DiegoImperial Counties Building and Construction Trades Council currently produces 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water every day – over 75 billion gallons since 2015 – for San Diego County residents and businesses.