A Permit Quagmire

How long should a permit renewal take? Not a new permit, but a renewal. Three days if your renewal permit is for a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, California. It may require additional mitigation requirements as well. That remains to be seen on August 7 when the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board (regional board) is scheduled to vote.

This project has been in the works since 1998. This is also the third time since 2006 that the $1 billion project has been before the regional board, previous permits having expired, and new regulations being adopted over the passing years. After two days of testimony, the conditions recommended by staff for the permit renewal remain unchanged. Seventy-six speakers including the California Chamber of Commerce, labor and local business representatives spoke in support of the project pointing out the number of jobs and increase in tax revenues to the county, while 99 speakers opposed mostly environmentalists and local neighborhood groups.

The primary concern of the regional board members focused was on the proposed mitigation at Bolsa Chica Wetlands.  Concern was also expressed about the lack of specificity of the project proponent’s mitigation plan that calls for restoring 5.7 acres of wetlands, enhancing water circulation, and paying for the inlet dredging. There was also concern with staff awarding 129 acres of mitigation credit for building the inlet and establishing a trust fund for future dredging needs.

The desalination plant plans to sell 50 million gallons of desalted water a day to the Orange County Water District. It would replace half the imported water supplies that is vulnerable to shortages during droughts and demands from other areas and the conveyance reliability of waterways if disrupted by earthquakes. The district estimates the average home would see an increase of $3 to $6 dollars a month.

By my calculations, this project has been in the process of getting numerous permits for the last 22 years. The earliest the plant could come on-line would be 2022. However, the project also needs approval from the California Coastal Commission. A Coastal Commission representative indicated the proposed Bolsa Chica mitigation was inadequate, additional mitigation would be needed elsewhere, and sea level rise would need to be addressed. Maybe at year 35 the project will finally be approved?

The California Chamber of Commerce supports projects that increase water supplies including desalination, new reservoirs, water use efficiencies, water reuse, new technologies, and conservation. All will be needed to ensure a safe and reliable water source for the state’s businesses and residents.

Valerie Nera, Policy Advocate