Eleven members of the California Coastal Commission voted against the facility, which water treatment developer Poseidon Water has been trying to build for decades.
Poseidon said the plant could produce up to 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, helping make the region more drought-resistant.
The commission, tasked with “protecting and enhancing” the state’s extensive coastline, heard public comments about the project throughout Thursday, with a majority of speakers opposing it. Others, expressing concern about water resource shortages in the future, argued that whenever possible additional water resources should be developed.
Poseidon released a statement after the vote, thanking Gov. Gavin Newsom for his support and reaffirming his belief that the plant would be an important tool in maintaining the state’s water supply.
“Today wasn’t the decision we were hoping for,” said Poseidon communications director Jessica Jones. “California continues to face a devastating drought with no end in sight. … Every day we see new calls for protection as reservoir water levels drop to dangerous lows. We firmly believe that this desalination project would have created a sustainable drought. tolerant water source for Orange County, just as it is for San Diego County.”
But desalination opponents argue that less expensive and less damaging conservation tactics should be the first resort.
The commission is appointed or elected by state legislatures and the governor. Before the vote, his staff made recommendations against the plant, citing in part the incredible energy consumption of desalination, its impact on marine life, projected sea level rise and the cost of the resulting water itself — with those costs being passed on to customers.
Commission staff acknowledged in the report that their findings neither mean the project is “unauthorizable” nor that it is totally opposed to desalination, writing: “Staff recognize the need to develop new, reliable sources of water in Southern California and believe that well planned and placed desalination plants are likely to play a role in providing these supplies.”
Desalination works by separating water molecules from salty seawater using reverse osmosis. The remaining brine with a high salt content is returned to the sea.
A plant of this magnitude – the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County – is already in operation. Poseidon began operating this facility in late 2015 and sold all production to the San Diego County Water Authority under a 30-year contract.
Newsom has expressed support for the plant’s construction, citing ongoing droughts and difficult water supplies in California. He recently told the editorial board of the Bay Area News Group, “What more evidence do you need that you need to have more tools in your toolbox than what we’ve experienced? Seven of the last 10 years have been severe droughts.”
But opponents of the desalination plant argue there are other ways to combat the drought.
On its website dedicated to fighting the Huntington Beach facility, the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation notes that the water the project would provide is not needed, calling the potential facility a “waste of money.”
In fact, research by the Pacific Institute, a water-focused think tank, found that California could significantly reduce its urban water use by 30% to 48% with existing and cutting-edge technologies. In its most recent report, the institute argued that “water efficiency opportunities are found across the state, but are greatest in the South Shore hydrological region.” It pointed to solutions that cost very little compared to desalination, including increased wastewater recycling and stormwater harvesting – with about two-thirds of the region’s potential water savings coming from the residential sector.
“Seawater desalination is among the most expensive water supply options,” Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, told CNN. “From a cost, environmental, and energy perspective, it makes the most sense for California to explore these other alternatives first.”
CNN’s Taylor Romine contributed to this report.