After an hours-long public hearing, the California Coastal Commission put off making a final decision on a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
"I don't relish going through another hearing like this, but I'm sure we probably will," Commissioner Greg Cox said during the meeting in Newport Beach council chambers. "I have a lot more questions than I have answers now."
Commissioners voted unanimously to take action that would allow for more study on several aspects of the project.
A timeline for moving forward was unclear. Poseidon agreed to withdraw its development permit application, with the understanding that the company would resubmit it after completing more research.
Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman said she was livid about the outcome.
"It's up to the applicants to submit a complete project," she said. "And if the project wasn't complete, it should've been denied."
Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said he saw the vote as a "win-win."
Hundreds of people attended the hearing, spilling out into a breezeway and filling an overflow room.
Many may have been expecting the years of debate to culminate in a vote by the powerful state agency over whether to give the controversial project final approval.
The plant would take in massive amounts of seawater and transform it into drinking water. Some detractors have cited the process as harmful to the ocean environment.
Staff members had urged the commission — which is tasked with protecting access to California's coastline — to approve the project, but with major caveats that officials with Stamford, Conn.-based Poseidon Resources said would effectively kill the project.
Poseidon has said that those conditions, including using expensive subsurface intake pipes instead of existing intake and discharge systems at the plant's proposed site, would boost the cost beyond the point of workability.
The desalination project would be built at the AES Huntington Beach Generating Station, which has unscreened intake pipelines used as cooling systems. The commission's environmental scientists say the process threatens to suck in and kill large numbers of marine creatures.
Commission staff member Alison Dettmer took Poseidon to task for what she described as its shortsighted refusal to consider alternative intake systems.
The Huntington Beach project, she said, could set a precedent for future desalination plants statewide, and other state boards are in the process of reworking regulations that would apply to such projects.
"We advised Poseidon many, many years ago to consider alternative intakes," Dettmer said. "Their technology is antiquated, and it's inappropriate here."
Maloni argued that the subsurface intakes would be less environmentally sound than the current intake systems.
Maloni told commissioners that if they act according to the staff recommendation, the move would "take the project back to Square One."
The company, he said, would need to go back to Huntington Beach and other agencies for permission to build the subsurface intake systems.
Debbie Cook, former mayor of Huntington Beach and a vocal opponent of the project, said she expects that Poseidon would wait for turnover in council membership before bringing the issue back to the city.
The project as proposed — using the AES systems — has been approved in years past by previous councils. However, a majority of current council members oppose the project.
Proponents say the plant, which would produce enough water to supply about 100,000 households, is a much-needed addition to the region's ever-dwindling water supply.
At the hearing, a long line of regional elected officials expressed support for the project — in particular from South Orange County cities such as San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach, where residents are at the mercy of imported water supplies.
Proponents have also contended that the plant's construction and operation would create jobs. Some audience members sported hard hats and construction vests with stickers reading, "Yes on Desal."
Opponents, however, suggest that the project could be a financial "boondoggle," as Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Shaw put it, inflicting increased water rates on area residents.
While more than a dozen local water providers have said they support the desalter's mission, none has officially committed to purchasing water from the plant once it's operating. That's because the purified water would be significantly more expensive than current supplies imported from outside the county.
And desalters of the proposed Huntington Beach project's scale, opponents say, are unproven.
A similar desalter is under construction in Carlsbad. Poseidon proposed that project, along with the Huntington Beach desalter, in 1998. Both would be the largest seawater-to-drinking-water operations in the country.