California Town Votes on Huge Desalinization Plant

A city council vote is scheduled Monday on a huge desalinization plant for Huntington Beach, Calif. It would create 50 million gallons of drinking water a day from the Pacific Ocean. Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC reports.

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As the Los Angeles metro area grows, so does its thirst for water. Last year, a city in Orange County, California, started turning toilet water into drinking water. Instead of looking to the bathroom, the city of Huntington Beach is looking to its most popular attraction, the Pacific Ocean. A company is proposing to turn 50 million gallons of seawater per day into drinking water. This proposal has caused a rift among people in what is normally a sleepy beach city. KPCC's Rob Schmitz has this story.

ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

The fact is, three-fourths of the water Angelenos drink every day comes from miles away, and Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources is betting one day this already limited supply of water will be scarcer and more valuable. Poseidon's solution is to develop two of the world's largest desalination plants within miles of each other in Southern California.

Ms. JOSIE McKINLEY (Poseidon Resources): The water goes in through the unit and it will then pull the drinking water through the center.

SCHMITZ: Poseidon's Josie McKinley stands outside a small pilot desalination plant in Carlsbad. Ocean water pours through a series of pipes into rows of reverse osmosis filters which purify the water.

(Soundbite of running water)

SCHMITZ: McKinley grabs a plastic cup and drinks the result, pure H20. The sludgy, salty sediment that's left is discharged back into the ocean. This plant is a small-scale model of two desalination plants Poseidon is proposing, one for Carlsbad and another for Huntington Beach. Each would produce 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, equal to 8 percent of Orange County's water needs. City Councilwoman Debbie Cook says most folks in Huntington Beach aren't convinced their city needs the plant.

Ms. DEBBIE COOK (City Councilwoman, Huntington Beach): I think most residents here recognize that this is not a project that benefits them directly.

SCHMITZ: That's because her city has for now a sufficient supply of water from its aquifer. Cook's concern is that the proposed desalted water will be piped to drier southern Orange County where the aquifer isn't as large and where development is booming. In addition, Poseidon's desalted water won't be cheap. Estimates are it'll cost double what water imported from northern California or the Colorado River costs now. But the biggest issue is where the desalt plants would be located.

(Soundbite of seabirds)

SCHMITZ: Joe Geever, spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation, stands in the beach sand near the city's power plant. Poseidon wants to build its desalination project adjacent to this power plant, a plant that cools its generators by piping in seawater from half a mile out at sea. Poseidon wants to piggyback its plant onto the power plant so that it could draw water from these pipes. Geever says for years groups like his have tried to shut down the power plant because its so-called once-through cooling system kills tons of marine life.

Mr. JOE GEEVER (Spokesman, Surfrider Foundation): We're concerned about, you know, one that the desal may extend the life of these once-through cooling systems or, in the short term, exacerbate how much marine life mortality is going on right now.

SCHMITZ: Huntington Beach's desal project may have skeptics, but it also has its share of proponents. Many in the city's business community point to the $2 million of potential property tax revenue and, says businessman David Padea(ph), the city's chance of pioneering a new technology.

Mr. DAVID PADEA (Businessman): So frequently who essentially don't want to see any type of progress or any type of forward thinking. And you need someone really to kind of get up and say, `Hey, we need to change.'

SCHMITZ: Whether or not that change will be made is up to Huntington Beach's City Council. It's scheduled to vote on Poseidon's proposal tonight. For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Orange County.

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