Quenching the Peninsula’s thirst with recycled water

By Ian Evans

The Monterey Peninsula has some of the most expensive water in the country. It also doesn’t have enough of it. A new project would help solve the water shortage by recycling the area’s wastewater. But exactly how much water the project will end up recycling remains uncertain, and some locals still worry about drinking water that may have irrigated crops months earlier.

The project, known as Pure Water Monterey, or PWM for short, is a collaboration between two public agencies: the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and Monterey One Water. It will collect and treat water from four sources: local households, stormwater that runs into drains, agricultural water and the water used to wash local produce. It’s one-half of the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, a larger attempt to meet the area’s water needs and which also includes a desalination plant in Marina.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project calls for Pure Water Monterey to produce 3,500 acre-feet of drinking water annually by late 2019. (On average, a California household will use between “between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use,” according to the Water Education Foundation).

The management district would then sell that water to the area’s privately-owned water provider, California American Water, or Cal Am.

However, some local citizens have concerns over the process. In a recent letter to Voices of Monterey Bay, Jon Moore wrote about his concerns over the safety of treating both household wastewater and agricultural water, writing that “… the PWM project is attempting to recycle raw sewage combined with toxic agriculture waste,” and “… I won’t drink it or cook with it.”

Dave Stoldt, the general manager of the MPWMD, said that he has heard these concerns before. People, he said, seem to be particularly worried about pharmaceuticals in the water and about “legacy” pesticides, so called because they linger in the soil for decades. DDE, for instance, is a byproduct of DDT, a chemical that was banned in the US in 1972. But it’s hydrophobic — it doesn’t like water — and so doesn’t wash away easily. If the soil with DDE is disturbed, the chemical can make its way into agricultural water. Most of the time, said Stoldt, that chemical wants to get away from water, so it will cling to solids that are filtered out quickly.

If it doesn’t get washed away quickly, it will have to endure the project’s four stages of water treatment.

“At the end of the day, (the PWM) system can deal with even agricultural waste,” said Mehul Patel, the executive director of operations at the Orange County Water District, which began operating its own water reuse project in 2015.

The PWM website boasts that its process makes water even cleaner than is required by California. Randy Barnard, the manager of the recycled water unit on the State Water Board, confirmed that PWM met the state’s health and safety requirements for a water reuse project and added that those requirements are “designed to protect the public health.” Mike McCullough, the government affairs administrator for Monterey One Water, echoed Barnard’s point: “These projects have health and safety in mind. That’s at the forefront of the science and technology,” said McCullough.

While PWM could start pumping out 3,500 acre-feet of water per year in 2019, those numbers could change. It depends, in part, on the success of the other half of the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project – Cal Am’s desalination plant.

Cal Am’s need for so much water began in 1995, when the California State Water Resources Control Board concluded that Cal Am was pumping too much water out of the Carmel River. The board ordered Cal Am to stop over-pumping and replace 10,730 acre-feet of water per year back to river and groundwater. Then, in 2009 the board issued a Cease and Desist Order to Cal Am, which said that the company must stop pumping more than 3,376 acre-feet per year by 2016. In 2016 the company was granted a five-year extension.

So, by 2021 Cal Am must find another source of water that can both meet the area’s needs and make up for the company’s past overdraft. To do this Cal Am proposed the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project — the company would build a desal plant in the City of Marina, while the management district and Monterey One Water built Pure Water Monterey.

The desalination plant will provide 6.4 million gallons of water per day – about 23 acre-feet a day – to Cal Am. But there is some local opposition to it. The desal plant is likely to be challenged by environmental groups and the City of Marina. A legal challenge could mean that a judge would order construction of the plant to halt until proceedings finish, and there is no contingency plan for how the Peninsula would get water if that happened.

Catherine Stedman, Cal Am’s Central California manager of external affairs, said that Cal Am’s legal advisors have told her that an injunction by a judge is unlikely. But groups like the nonprofit Public Water Now say that they would like to see a “Plan B” for getting water to the Peninsula, just in case.

Stoldt also said that if the desal plant is not approved or if Cal Am ends up in court, the public utility might “push harder” to have the commission approve an expansion of PWM.

The most likely expansion would have PWM produce an additional 2,250 acre-feet of water. It could be ready by late 2021 – around the same time that Cal Am’s desal plant is expected to be operational. But if the desal plant is held up in court, it is not clear that an expanded Pure Water Monterey alone would be able to satisfy the peninsula’s thirst.

While Stoldt said that the MPWMD thinks that that an extra 2,250 acre-feet could be enough water to satisfy the Peninsula for 15 to 20 years, in a recent document, the California Public Utilities Commission — which oversees new water projects— said that details of the expansion are too uncertain and need to be looked at “before the Commission can consider if PWM expansion could provide an affordable, specific, concrete, reliable, and permanent source of water for Cal-Am ratepayers.”

The proposal also expressed concerns that any expansion of Pure Water Monterey would take too long to finish. “This proceeding has been pending for over six years and it is timely to reach a decision…” it states. “The (cease and desist) deadline is fast approaching.”

The combination of desal plant and reused water seems most likely to move forward. In August, the CPUC issued a proposal to approve a version of the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project which included Cal Am’s desal plant. Their final decision could come by September 13. If the plan is approved, the water coming out of resident’s taps is likely to be a combination of reused water and desalinated ocean by 2021.

LETTER: Pure Water refuses to engage toxicological experts

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.


Ian Evans

About Ian Evans

Ian Evans is a freelance environmental journalist who grew up in California and writes about the complex relationships between water, land and policy.