The future of Monterey County water Supervisors will decide if Cal Am’s plan to build a desal plant can proceed


By Melodie Chrislock

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors will decide July 15 if California American Water will be permitted to build its $329 million desal plant. The supervisors will be hearing appeals brought by Public Water Now and the Marina Coast Water District challenging the county Planning Commission’s decision to allow Cal Am to proceed with this seriously flawed venture.

There are some major problems with the proposed plant.

First, Cal Am has no legal rights to the source water for the plant. Its feeder wells would draw brackish groundwater from the Salinas Valley Basin, not ocean water. And Cal Am can’t get water rights in the already overdrafted groundwater basin.

Second, there is the potential for serious environmental damage. Cal Am wants to draw 15,000 acre-feet of groundwater annually, which may create massive seawater intrusion, permanently damaging the aquifer and destroying Marina’s water supply.

Then there’s the cost. If the supervisors approve this permit, it will cost the Peninsula dearly. We will pay for this with water bills twice as expensive. We will pay for this in the increased cost of a public buyout of the private water supplier. We will pay for this whether or not Cal Am ever gets the water rights it needs to operate the  plant. That’s right. We could pay for this desal plant and never see a drop of water. Remember, when Cal Am fails, we pay the bill. We’re already on the hook for $127 million for this proposed desal plant.

And it gets worse. Who decides this? Back in April, the Planning Commission voted 6 to 4 to give Cal Am this building permit. The six commissioners who approved the permit represent Salinas Valley Districts 1, 2 and 3. Residents in those districts are completely unaffected by this decision. They don’t have to pay for Cal Am’s desal. They won’t see their water bills doubled. But their approval could drastically impact the future of the Peninsula.

Sounds unfair, right? Public Water Now supporters and 24,000 Yes on Measure J voters certainly think so. Measure J was the successful ballot measure intended to lead to public ownership of Cal Am, a privately owned, for-profit business with a water monopoly on the Peninsula.

At the April Planning Commission hearing, it appeared that commissioners from Districts 1, 2 and 3 knew very little about the Peninsula’s water situation. The environmentally superior alternative to Cal Am’s desal, the Pure Water Monterey (PWM) expansion, was not even mentioned, nor was the fact that the PWM expansion could give us the water we need at one third the cost. PWM will cost $2,100 per acre-foot versus $6,000 per acre-foot for Cal Am’s desal production — if it comes to be.

In a classic failure of responsibility, the county staff only gave the planning commissioners Cal Am’s arguments and the company’s flawed 12,000-page environmental impact report (with no time to read it), which had been rubber stamped by the California Public Utilities Commission. Staff never brought up the problems Cal Am’s project faces or the alternative of expanding Pure Water Monterey.

Opposing the permit and raising many concerns were the planning commissioners who represent Marina and the Peninsula. They asked for more information and more time to consider Cal Am’s project, which directly impacts their residents. But Cal Am threatened that any delay would cause rationing of the existing water supply.

As it turns out, that is not true. The Water Management District has recently made it clear that there is no danger of rationing because we are using less than our entitled diversion limit. No rationing will result even if the September 2019 and the September 2020 milestones are missed, the deadlines established by the state’s cease and desist order intended to protect the overburdened Carmel River.

Cal Am never mentioned that the Pure Water Monterey expansion is on track to meet the December 2021 deadline if Cal Am can’t deliver, nor that Cal Am is refusing to buy the less expensive water from the PWM expansion.

The Public Water Now appeal asks for another environmental impact study to look at these many unresolved issues. It would provide the supervisors with vital information and facts that were omitted from the first environmental impact report and the Planning Commission hearing. With so much at stake, an informed decision shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Now it’s up to the supervisors. This is the Peninsula’s last chance for local input. Will the three supervisors who represent Salina Valley ag interests force Cal Am’s desal plan on the Peninsula or will they defer to Supervisors Jane Parker and Mary Adams, whose decision this should be?

The appeal will be heard at 10:30 a.m. Monday in the board chambers at 168 W. Alisal St. in Salinas. If you want a say in your water future, make your voice heard at the hearing or beforehand by writing the supervisors at

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Melodie Chrislock

About Melodie Chrislock

Melodie Chrislock is the director of Public Water Now, the citizens’ group that organized and promoted the Measure J initiative that requires the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to pursue a possible public takeover of Cal Am. She lives in Carmel.