(Reuters) -A proposed California desalination plant that would produce 50 million gallons of drinking water per day failed a crucial regulatory hurdle on Monday, likely dooming a project that had been promoted as a partial solution for sustained drought.
The staff of the California Coastal Commission recommended denying approval of the Huntington Beach plant proposed by Poseidon Water, controlled by the infrastructure arm of Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management. The Commission’s staff said the project was more susceptible to sea-level rise than was understood when it was first proposed more than two decades ago.
The project, just south of Los Angeles, was also deemed by Commission staff too harmful to nearby fish and bird habitat. The ground beneath the plant also posed a seismic risk, Commission staff said, and the more expensive water produced by the plant would harm low-income consumers.
Environmentalists have long campaigned against the plant, saying desalination decimates ocean life, costs too much money and energy, and soon will be made obsolete by water recycling.
The recommendation could be a fatal blow for a project that was designed to produce 50 million gallons (189.3 million liters) of drinking water per day. That would be enough for 16% of the homes in the Orange County Water District, where 2.5 million people live.
The Coastal Commission, which is scheduled to consider the matter on May 12, could defy the staff recommendation and vote to approve the project, but it rarely does so.
Poseidon has operated a similar plant, the largest in the United States, down the coast in Carlsbad since 2015, but that was approved locally before the state adopted regulations for desalination plants.
The company has been trying for more than 20 years to get the project approved, spending $100 million to this stage, according to a company estimate.
Poseidon said the commission staff “erred in its recommendation” and called on political leaders to save the project.
“California’s elected officials and regulators should consider the dire consequences that this recommendation will have for desalination in California,” Poseidon said in a statement.
“If this recommendation stands, it will be the death knell for desalination in California,” it said.
With U.S. Western states facing a sustained drought, regulators had appeared ready to approve the Huntington Beach plant. The company had expressed enough confidence last year to talk of breaking ground on the $1.4 billion plant by the end of 2022.
California Governor Gavin Newsom had offered conditional support for the project, so long as it could be done responsibly.
Responding to the recommendation, Alex Stack, a spokesman for the governor, noted that California was facing an unprecedented drought and that the first three months of this year were the driest in recorded history.
“This Administration is committed to ensuring the sustainability of California’s water supply with an all-of-the above strategy, and that includes desalination,” Stack said in a statement.
“Regions across California must continue to innovate on local projects as climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Hogue, Sandra Maler and Kenneth Maxwell)
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