By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Orange County taxpayers may have to pay a lot more for a $1 billion Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant if the Mesa Water District gets its way.
For the past decade the developer, Poseidon Resources, has promised taxpayers they won’t have to pay a cent for construction of the desal plant, which would create about 56,000 acre-feet of pricey drinking water every year, if approved.
About 100 Mesa area residents were in the audience.
Invited speaker Robert Sulnick made Poseidon’s case during a 20-minute presentation.
Opponents of the desal plant were not invited to speak.
Sulknick was introduced as an environmental attorney and the executive director of OC WISE–with no mention (until questioned by this reporter after his presentation) that the group is a Poseidon front of developers and that he is one of Poseidon’s paid consultants.
A member of the audience questioned Sulnick about a survey mailed by Mesa Water asking her opinion of a ballot initiative to increase property taxes by $89 in order to pay for the desal plant.
Mesa’s public relations officer, Stacy Taylor, who was facilitating, was caught by surprise and so was Sulnick.
“Robert, you wouldn’t know anything about that,” Taylor said.
“I don’t know anything about it, but I was going to make up an answer,” Sulnick joked in return.
Laughter ensured, but the 11-question survey is no joke. It was sent with a two-page “Information Fact Sheet” explaining that project funding “could come from different sources” including “a ballot measure that would require two-thirds voter approval.”
The mailer mixes hotly disputed assertions, such as calling the project “environmentally sensitive and cost-effective”, with leading questions.
For example, respondents are asked if each of the 11 assertions “makes you more or less likely to support the tax” based on the assumption that:
“Investment in a desalination project makes sense for Orange County – it is a cost-effective, long-term solution to our local water supply challenges.”
The so-called fact sheet explains that to make Poseidon’s project cost-effective “a potential ballot measure could provide funding for the reliability surcharge and construction of additional distribution systems throughout the groundwater basin rather than a rate increase on your water bill.”
Taylor said that the survey was sent to 6,000 Mesa Water ratepayers and that she was told it was conducted by “one of the best ballot initiative companies in the state of California”.
She didn’t know the company’s name, how much the survey cost or who paid for it. But said she would be happy to provide that information and agreed it “was a very good idea” to post that information on the Mesa website.
The survey itself was already posted on the website, but the cost information remains unpublished at press time.
The Orange County Water District, but not Mesa Water, is negotiating a contract with Poseidon.
OCWD manages the county’s groundwater basin from which 19 north-county water retail agencies, including Mesa, pump at least 70 percent of their drinking water.
OCWD General Manager Mike Marcus told the Voice by email that Mesa acted on its own and announced the survey at an early-morning OCWD board meeting on June 10.
Mesa Water supplies 108,000 residents of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach with water from a small part of the groundwater basin.
The agency brags about its own “drought proof” and “100 percent” self-sufficient water supply; thus, it has no need for the 56,000 acre feet of imported water that Poseidon’s desalinated water would replace—at three times the cost–in order to receive a $399 million government subsidy required to make the project viable to private investors.
But the small water agency has long sought to influence the debate over the proposed desalination project and to promote desalination in general, working closely with Poseidon to do that.
Since then, Mesa Water board president Shawn Dewane has been CalDesal’s president. Dewane also serves on the OCWD Board of Directors.
Critics of the project never took the no-tax promise seriously, in part because of Poseidon’s insistence on receiving the subsidy.
And recently Poseidon and OCWD tentatively agreed that the water agency would pay for the infrastructure needed to deliver the desalinated water, a public cost that could reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
But on its website Poseidon still promises that its desal plant will be built “At no cost to taxpayers”.
The majority of the Huntington Beach City Council members who approved local permits for the project in 2006 accepted at face value Poseidon’s promise of private-only funding.
“We’re going to need the water”, Council Member Don Hansen said at the time. “It’s not us building the plant. It’s all private investment.”
A final contract proposal with Poseidon is expected to come before the OCWD Board of Directors by the end of the year.