Scientists rebuke Coastal Commission over desalination

SACRAMENTO – The Coastal Commission’s stated concern that a proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant’s intake pipes pose a threat to small and microscopic plankton has been rebutted in a letter from three prominent California marine biologists.

Anthony Koslow, Eric Miller and John McGowan — marine biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla — were responding to comments made at a Dec. 1 panel about ocean desalination in Ventura County by Tom Luster, the agency’s lead staffer on the desalination issue.

Luster actually had cited Koslow, Miller and McGowan’s research in arguing against open intakes given a 75 percent reduction in plankton off Southern California since the early 1970s. Citing the Scripps research Luster said it would be “hard to maintain and enhance marine life like the Coastal Act requires in a situation like this and so open intakes have a hurdle to overcome.”

In a sternly worded Dec. 29 rebuttal letter, Koslow, Miller and McGowan said Luster’s comment reflected “an inaccurate understanding of our research,” adding that their paper showed “many of the taxa are predominantly distributed offshore but share the same trend as more coastal taxa.” 

“It is therefore not reasonable to attribute this decline to the impact of coastal development or nearshore power-plant intakes,” the scientists wrote. “We ask that you refrain from repeating your Ventura forum comments, or anything similar, as it presents an almost exactly opposite conclusion to that obtained by our research.”

The Scripps researchers’ conclusion was that large-scale ocean forcing, not local coastal processes, are behind changes off the Southern California coast since the 1970s. They added that they hoped their science could “inform regulatory decisions wherever applicable, but the science needs to be interpreted correctly.”

In an emailed response, Luster said his point was that the decline in plankton populations had made it difficult for the new proposed project, which he said “would represent an additional adverse effect to meet the Coastal Act’s requirement to maintain and enhance marine life productivity.” But Miller — one of the Scripps researchers — reiterated that their study, which found that environmental forcing had reached tipping points in 1976 and 1989, “did not detect an influence of power plant cooling water intakes on nearshore fish populations.”

“It’s a mystery to me how my quote was misinterpreted,” Luster said, in an interview.

The question at issue is no mere academic matter. The future of the Huntington Beach desalination plant isn’t just about one proposed facility, but about the statewide future of a technology that turns saltwater into drinking water. That’s a particularly important question as the state begins to emerge from a long-running drought. Decisions by the commission and other state agencies on the Huntington Beach plant will help decide whether developers pursue a number potential plants up and down California’s coastline.

A desalination plant went online last year in the north San Diego County city of Carlsbad, but the makeup of the Coastal Commission and state regulations have changed since the approval process for that facility. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the state water board “directed desalination plants to install wells — offshore or on the beach — or another type of subsurface intake that the state says would naturally filter out marine organisms.” However, the plant’s supporters point out that state laws require subsurface intake technologies to be technically, economically, socially and environmentally feasible.

According to Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni, the harm to plankton is minimal.

“There are estimated to be 115 billion larva in the source water of the desal plant,” he said. “Our estimated entrainment is 0.02 percent. Put another way, for every 10,000 fish eggs the desal plant is anticipated to entrain two. That means that 9,998 fish eggs are not at risk. This entire debate is over the potential loss of two out of 10,000 fish eggs in the desal plant’s source water, 99 percent of which die of natural mortality.”

The latest fracas over the Huntington Beach desalination plant bolsters Coastal Commission critics who believe the commission’s problems with the plan stem more from its hostility to growth than any real concerns about the fate of the food chain’s lowliest members.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected]


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  1. Gonzo
    Gonzo 11 January, 2017, 16:00

    Thanks Steve, you’ve started addressing what I was shocked by—- I rang the bell on this to usher in the New Year via mass broadcast email January 1st.

    I challenged MSM, especially self-described watchdog orgs, to investigate further, give us in the enviro-NGO community more info but also elaborate, possibly provide the ramifications, the consequences.

    As a land use, regulatory compliance and construction services advisor, I am totally confused by Mr. Luster’s response.

    It is in fact what the world-renowned scientists said: They were mystified by HIS remarks regarding their studies, made at a December Deal Conference in Ventura?

    So Steve, who IS on first? And exactly what IS on second (next)? And will California ever GET to third base, resolve conflicting science conclusions?

    Mr. Luster’s quote seems clueless in light of their December letter I viewed. I interpreted it as an strong ACADEMIC CEASE & DESIST, on UCSD stationary letterhead no less. They cited him as 180 degrees off.

    Sound science is critical, and the CCC doesn’t appear to have supporting evidence.

    Frankly, I try to provide my clients with worst case scenarios: In this instance, IMHO, it’ll be a miracle if those who’ve spent millions of dollars trying to fulfill possibly false/bogus expectations don’t litigate.
    And what about all of the lost time over the past 5 years or so, since the CCC staff telegraphed “Don’t even try to submit an open ocean intake”????

    Probably won’t end up in court because the proponents will need to go before the Commission.

    Roger E. Bütow
    Founder & Executive Director
    Clean Water Now

    Reply this comment
  2. JAP
    JAP 15 January, 2017, 10:55

    “Ocean Forcing?” Yeah, that clears it up. I’ll have to remember to use that, if I”m trying to appear authoritative.

    Reply this comment
    • gonzo
      gonzo 15 January, 2017, 14:02

      “Ocean forcing” isn’t mumbo-jumbo nor that difficult to understand.
      It’s about the major causal stress factors, the true elements forcing change.

      You could use FORCING for economics, climate, any subject……They can be examples of or due to natural or un-natural (human in origin) elements.

      And really, you think scientists aren’t supposed to use state of the art terms in a study published then peer-reviewed?

      What I’ve encouraged Watchdog to look into are the $$$ impacts up to this point, In layman’s terms? How much $$$ have all of these utility corporations been FORCED to spend, how much $$$ did they then raise their rates accordingly?

      How much $$$ has Mr. & Mrs. Ratepayer over-paid, out of pocket FORCED to spend because of those rate hikes? Is the State going to reimburse the utilities, then the courts direct utilities to refund? Gotta be in the millions if not billions.

      This is a consumer scandal, a fiasco that is a class action cluster screw. Maybe you, JAP, have been ripped off for nothing, at the tail end of a phony food chain that never needed to occur?

      Desalination ocean intakes is only a portion of the cancer.

      Reply this comment
  3. Dallas Weaver Ph.D.
    Dallas Weaver Ph.D. 17 January, 2017, 15:16

    Basically, Tom Luster of the coastal commission staff has been getting away with demanding the use of mathematical models, containing known false assumptions, and arbitrary assumptions to calculate “Mitigation Fees” for decades. Now real science by real experts at Scripts published a peer-reviewed article (not an agency gray literature non-independent reviewed publications) and it doesn’t indicate any environmental impacts associated with changes in cooling water intakes (big changes over this time period in cooling water flows).

    With the false assumptions of density independent survivals of larval fish hidden in the mathematics of the models and survival assumptions being arbitrary, they calculated the Impact that Mr. Luster and the CCC wanted, which provided tens of millions of dollars in Mitigation Funds for them to play with at the expense of the electric rate-payers (aka citizens). Advocacy science is good business, even when it is false.

    His latest demand was for a billion dollar sub-sand intake for a desalinization plant to save 80 million fish larva per year. As many species of fish/shrimp larva are bought and sold around the world at prices between 100 and 1000 dollars per million, it appears that the California Coastal Commission has gone officially institutionally insane by even suggesting/demanding a billion dollar solution to an 80 thousand dollar problem. The definition of institutional insanity is a disconnection from reality.

    In trying to force this insane solution to a minor problem (that many larva are produced by the one-day catch of a very small commercial fishing boat: less than a ton of mature fish), Mr. Luster had to magically assume that the ecology on that filter surface wouldn’t adapt to eating all those larval fish concentrating on the sand surface with the flow of the water into the filter (same thing that feeds sand crabs in the surf area: water flowing into the sand). Those organisms on the filter surface would just eat the larva and all Mr. Luster would have accomplished with his billion dollars of the citizens money would have been to hide the loss of that small amount of larva.

    Reply this comment
  4. gonzo
    gonzo 22 January, 2017, 12:16

    Now I get it………Luster has been looking at ALTERNATIVE FACTS, We’re now down to who are you going to believe, pre-disposed biased staff justifying poor science or a bunch of egghead academics, who spend their entire lives collecting data, analyzing, studying cause & effect at the world’s most prestigious marine environs think tank?

    Luster’s staff alleged last week that he’s been spending between 30-70% of his time these past few years solely dedicated to the HB Poseidon Project…huh? Now isn’t that scientific, a 30-70% spread? Not on average but a data gap width you could drive your career & CalPers through. One project justifies that kind of work load demand?

    “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”
    — Philip K. Dick

    Reply this comment

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Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut

Steven Greenhut is CalWatchdog’s contributing editor. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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