A proposed ballot measure that would dedicate $100 billion to bolster California’s water supply is drawing a sharp rebuke, not only for the amount of spending but also for the dramatic sidesteps it would allow in the environmental review process.

For example, the proposal would make the controversial plan for a Huntington Beach desalination plant eligible for a huge taxpayer subsidy — even though the private, for-profit Poseidon Water company currently intends to pay for the $1.4 billion in construction costs.

If the Coastal Commission rejects the pending permit application for the Poseidon project, a single gubernatorial appointee — the Secretary for Natural Resources — could override any decision and grant the permit, according to the ballot proposal.

Such an override could happen even if the commission rejects Poseidon’s project before the November election, when the measure would appear on the ballot. If approved by voters, the initiative would apply retroactively to September 1, 2021. That means Poseidon could appeal any prior decision to the Newsom administration, which is considered friendly to the desalination proposal.

Additionally, the secretary of natural resources could amend any conditions imposed by the regulatory agency, replacing them with “conditions that the Secretary may determine, in the Secretary’s sole discretion, are appropriate.” Also, the proposed ballot measure would limit legal challenges to approved water projects.

These provisions could apply to most major water projects in the state, including reservoirs, aquifers, aqueducts and recycling systems as well as desalination plants.

Proponents of the ballot measure argue that the state’s vulnerability to drought is compounded by inadequate infrastructure, and that more money and streamlining environmental reviews are needed to correct that. The measure would require 2% of the state’s general fund — an estimated $4 billion annually — be spent on water projects, regardless of revenue shortfalls or other demands on the budget.

“Building a diverse and reliable water supply for today and (for) future generations requires innovation, and will undoubtedly engender opposition,” said Steve Sheldon, president of the Orange County Water District and one of five listed sponsors of the ballot measure. The district would be the principal purchaser of Poseidon water and has agreed to tentative terms for a contract if the project wins regulatory approval.

Three of the proposed ballot measure’s five main sponsors have indicated support for the Poseidon project in the past. In addition to Sheldon, former Orange County Water District board member Shawn Dewane has voted in favor of tentative contract terms with Poseidon and ballot proponent Edward Ring, co-founder of the conservative California Policy Center, has written in favor of the Poseidon project for the online California Globe as recently as March.

The two other sponsors represent farming and dairy interests, which have been among those hardest hit by the drought.

The proposal’s annual funding commitment would continue until annual water supplies increase by 5 million acre feet annually. An acre foot is enough to serve two to three households. It’s estimated it would take 25 years to reach that goal.

The proposal would modify the state’s constitution, replacing some existing elements of the document. But before voters get a shot at it, proponents must gather nearly 1 million valid signatures by May 2 to quality for the ballot. Ring estimated proponents would need to raise $5 million or more to collect the required signatures, but said his group — More Water Now — was confident in its fundraising capabilities.


Environmentalists alarmed

A range of environmentalists are disturbed by the proposed initiative, saying the rollback of environmental protections could have a negative impact on habitat throughout California, from the mountains to the ocean.

“This would be one of the most devastating measures ever for the state, in terms of the environment and environmental justice,” said Andrea Leon-Grossman of the environmental justice group Azul.

Ross Middlemiss of the Center for Biological Diversity said the measure “would incentivize the wrong kind of projects” by diluting environmental safeguards and focusing on storage, while limiting conservation allocations to 20% of the 5 million-acre-foot goal.

“The measure prioritizes outdated and environmentally destructive dam projects such as Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River and Sites Reservoir off the Sacramento River,” Middlemiss said. “California doesn’t need more costly, inefficient, inequitable and environmentally catastrophic storage projects. We must focus on conservation and efficiency.”

But coastal environmentalists, who’ve been battling the Poseidon proposal for years, are especially up in arms.

“This would really leave our coast vulnerable to corporations and profiteers,” said Mandy Sackett of the Surfrider Foundation. “It would remove regulatory authority from the agencies that have expertise and put it in the hands of one person, who is appointed by the governor, and has the possibility of becoming politicized.”

In addition to concerns that the Poseidon plant would kill marine organisms, opponents argue the additional water isn’t needed in the region and would cost considerably more than existing water sources. The Orange County Water District, Poseidon’s prospective public partner, serves 2.5 million residents in the north and central part of the county, and manages the large groundwater basin that provides the area with most of its water.

Opponents also point to a 2018 study by the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which manages water imported into the county. That report found in the best-case scenario, the Orange County Water District’s distribution area would never be short of water and wouldn’t need the desalter plant, thanks in part to its groundbreaking Groundwater Replenishment Program, which pumps highly filtered wastewater into its groundwater basin for use as potable water.

In the worst-case scenario, the district would be short 22,000 acre feet during an extremely dry year. However, tentative contract terms call for the district to buy 56,000 acre feet a year. And Poseidon, for its part, has said a smaller project would not be economically feasible. The desalted water has been pegged at $1,800 an acre foot, while imported water costs $1,100 and local groundwater costs about $600.

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