Monterey County gives Cal Am the green light Supervisors vote their regional interests

Cal Am opponents gather outside Monterey County board chambers | Royal Calkins

By Royal Calkins

Monterey County supervisors voted Monday to let California American Water start construction on its desalination plant even before the state Coastal Commission makes a decision on the technology involved.

On a fully predictable 3-2 vote, the supervisors also accepted unofficial state opinions about Cal Am’s water rights even though the courts have not made a binding decision on whether the company has the legal right to pump brackish groundwater as planned. 

“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” said George Riley, a longtime water activist and member of the water management district board.

As it stands now, Cal Am could begin site preparation work next to the Cemex plant in Marina as soon as September, though the Coastal Commission will not consider the project until November at the earliest. If Cal Am starts the project and then loses the right to go forward, it would be expected to put the property back into its existing state, most likely at the expense of its Peninsula customers.

Voting to let Cal Am move ahead were supervisors John Phillips, Luis Alejo and Chris Lopez. They represent Salinas Valley districts that won’t be expected to pay for the desal project and who won’t see their water bills rise dramatically like Peninsula residents.

The dissenters were supervisors Mary Adams and Jane Parker, who represent the coastal districts most affected by Cal Am’s plans. Parker represents Marina, whose leadership has been aggressively opposing the desal plan for environmental reasons. Marina residents are served by the Marina Coast Water District, which is in the midst of a court fight intended to stop the project.

Cal Am officials argued that they are under heavy pressure from state water regulators to meet various deadlines for completion of a desal plant. More than 20 years ago the state ordered the Peninsula to stop overtaxing its main water supply, the Carmel River, but various efforts to create a new supply were stymied by politics, other environmental concerns, bureaucratic blunders, a conflict of interest scandal, and Cal Am’s inability to create consensus. In an area heavily populated by the environmentalists, Cal Am has argued principally that additional water is needed to allow for more development while all but ignoring any potential environmental benefits of a desal plant.

Cal Am representatives said they must demonstrate significant progress on the desal effort by September 2020 or risk mandated reductions in the amount of water taken from the river. But Supervisor Adams asked Dave Stoldt, head of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, what would happen if that deadline was missed.

“Nothing,” he replied.

Adams argued that it is illogical to let Cal Am start work on the venture before the Coastal Commission makes a decision in the company’s controversial plan to use slant wells to obtain seawater to be treated in the plant. The slant wells would be drilled near the shoreline and angled to reach a mix of freshwater and seawater under the bay. State regulators have gone back and forth on the type of drilling procedures they prefer and have not yet endorsed the idea of slant wells. Cal Am tested the process — amid controversy over conflicts of interest and other issues — and produced mixed results.

Adams said she believes a desalination project will be necessary at some point to address the Peninsula’s water shortage but she isn’t certain the one under consideration is the right one.

Among the concerns, she said, is the location in Marina.

'Marina gets the burden without any of the benefits'

‘Marina gets the burden without any of the benefits,” she said. Parker argued, as did many residents in the audience, that it is even more illogical to start spending money on construction when it seems as though the need for desalinated water is decreasing. The Peninsula’s sewage treatment operation, known as Pure Water Monterey, is about to complete the first phase of a recycling project intended as a supplement to the desalination project and could soon begin the second phase, which could produce enough water to eliminate the need for the expensive desalination project. The latest estimate for the desalination venture is $329 million but county officials have said they expect the final figure to be much higher.

Parker noted that conservation efforts on the Peninsula and tiered pricing have dramatically reduced water demand, a fact that is weighing rather heavily on those involved in planning the water recycling program. Too little water use could translate into too little water to recycle.

Technically Monday’s vote was to uphold a county Planning Commission vote that broke down on exactly the same political and geographic lines — Peninsula commissioners voting against Cal Am’s plan and Salinas Valley commissioners voting the other way.

At the end of five hours of public hearing, Phillips, the board chairman, bristled at the repeated suggestion that it wasn’t fair for the Salinas Valley supervisors to impose their will on Peninsula residents, many of whom are opposed to the plant and fear that Cal Am’s already exceptionally high rates will increase dramatically if the plant is built. Public Water Now, the organization pushing for a public takeover of Cal Am, says the Peninsula water rates are the highest in the nation. Cal Am argues otherwise but does not dispute that the rates are among the highest.

Phillips said Salinas Valley residents are directly affected by the desal project because many of them work on the Peninsula and could lose their jobs if the water supply dries up. Supervisors Alejo and Lopez offered similar explanations for their votes.

Jeanne Turner, a Public Water Now activist, told supervisors that the three supervisors favoring Cal Am had all taken campaign contributions from Cal Am or others openly supportive of the desal project. Adams and Parker have not accepted any similar contributions, Turner said.

The lengthy public hearing featured almost every argument ever raised for or against the project, and the supervisors’ chambers was packed with many of the key players in the long-running water wars. Cal Am was represented by attorney Tony Lombardo, a land-use specialist who has been on a strong winning streak while advocating for clients with county business. 

Also in the pro-Cal Am crowd were hotel manager John Narigi, who has lobbied heavily on Cal Am’s behafl at least partly in exchange for a hotel industry price break from Cal Am, and longtime Republican Party activist Paul Bruno, whose pipeline company has received contract after contract from the water company. Cal Am’s president and chief operating officer also addressed the supervisors, along with former state Real Estate Commissioner Jeff Davi, and representatives of the Salinas Valley Water Coalition and Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. Speaking in favor of the project, Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter said the ag industry fears that if the Peninsula runs out of water, it would begin dipping into the Salinas supply, jeopardizing an industry that “employs hundreds of thousands of people.” 

The Cal Am supporters were united in arguing that there have already been too many delays in developing a new water supply, which means they must proceed without delay before additional issues pop up.

Melodie Chrislock, director of Public Water Now, concluded the public hearing by saying her group is considering an effort to force adjudication of the Salinas Valley groundwater basin, which would put a judge in charge of allocating the supply rather than letting growers continue to tap into the supply with little constraint.

Note: This article originally reported incorrectly that Supervisor Parker had asked Dave Stoldt about the consequence of missing a construction deadine, Supervisor Adams asked the question.

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Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Monterey County gives Cal Am the green light Supervisors vote their regional interests

  1. Royal, thank you for the first report I have seen or read that includes a full report on what occurred and why. What was so awful about waiting a few months to decide this? Mary Adams motion was spot on. But waiting was not for Cal Am who garners nothing but praise from those to whom it contributes big dollars. The fact the County RMA director was sitting with Cal Am at the hearing said a lot. Other media have done a surface report and had NO background information or really delineated the reasons for opposition. Should this plant/wells be built, it may cause extreme environmental damage by destroying the Dunes aquifer that feeds lower aquifers, and pulling in seawater. The system is designed to create seawater intrusion from pumping out that dune aquifer and thus replacing it with salt water. Thus, Cal Am can create necessity by destruction. This project is a corruption of the CEQA process, and an illustration of regulatory capture. They will be pumping over 6 million gallons a DAY from that aquifer with some ocean water. The salt waste or thousands of pounds per day will overwhelm the waste management district landfill. The three supervisors who voted for this should be ashamed and if the day comes when it all hits the fan and we have to deal with the results, I will be publishing the names of John Phillips, Luis Alejo, and Chris Lopez as three accomplices in an impending environmental crime. Their arguments are false as well….they seem to forget that Seaside has over 40% Latino population and they are not upper middle class. Many low income workers reside here but make just enough not to qualify for rate assistance. The rates we will al pay here are outrageous….and yet the hospitality industry gets bargain rates….they are working to drive out the lower middle class from the peninsula, and usurp Marina’s water rights and land use as well. I wish the public were more aware about this.

  2. Susan, most of these politicians are indebted to CalAm for their large donations. 60k was donated to Jimmy Panetta’s campaign and when I wrote to him about this, I never received a response. I’d be willing to bet money that all three who voted to move forward have been funded at some point by CalAm.

    It has been well documented that reclamation is a far better solution, as it costs a fraction of desal and replenishes dried up aquifers. Stanford’s study has shown that it will damage the barrier between Marina’s fresh water aquifer and the ocean, leaving Marina indebted to CalAm for our freshwater at some point, as well.

    It’s a win-win for CalAm and a huge cost to our environment and those people who will be paying CalAm for their water – I promise, it will cost the Peninsula a boatload for it.

  3. An open letter to the Salinas Valley Supervisors:

    While your collaborative vote regarding what should be the status of permits sought by Cal-Am to build its desal plant was expected, the reasons that were expected and the fact that you acted as expected is a sorry page in Monterey County politics.

    Major decisions, if they are to be true, fair and acceptable on their faces, should be based upon education, analysis,accepting of relevant facts, and the ability to not be persuaded by entities that contribute to your campaigns or supported by entities in ways not made public.

    In this case, all three of you failed in every way possible. Your explanations of why you voted together are lame and insulting to real, clear, fully supported facts. You, even a judge who is expected to rule on supportable evidence, ignored facts difficult to miss; seemed to vote without necessary educational or analytical effort to truly understand the issues involved; and there’s at least a serious concern that your votes were influenced by support from the entity you voted for, of any type, independent of what the record indicates.

    As many people have observed, your excuses were flawed. You don’t represent those who have to pay for what you just voted for. Have you ever heard of :Pure Water Monterey? Or are you just assuming that without your support of Cal-Am, the Peninsula have no water? Do your statements indicate you don’t prefer facts over funds or flawed arguments?

    I wonder how far from the truth you are?

    Bill Hood
    Former AMBAG Ex. Dir.
    Columbus OH

    William Hood, Jr.

  4. Just sent the following to the BOS. Unfortunately I can’t add attachment of the graph here to these comments…

    Dear Supervisors,

    I was disappointed to be unable to get a minute or two of your time yesterday at the end of your afternoon meeting. I had read on the Monday special agenda that if the item was not completed on Monday that additional public comment time would be allowed at 1:30 Tuesday.

    I was distressed by your decision on Monday. On Tuesday I was out walking in Palo Corona Regional Park reflecting on what I might have done differently. There were some things, and it occurred to me that I could come tell them to you as un-agendized comment that afternoon. It was already half past twelve, so I rushed back to the car, jumped in and headed directly to Salinas, then rushed from my parking spot and found my seat at 1:31 pm. But it was all for naught.

    I realized then that there was no public comment for the afternoon, but I stayed in hopes of getting a word in. It was not to be. I found the discussions you had on Economic Zones and Ex Parte communications by lawyers of interest however, so it was not a total waste.

    But here is the point that I still want to make. The graph I presented to you (and one of the mistakes was not using the overhead for the public to see… it just didn’t occur to me) is as true today as it was before you made your decision. It directly contradicts not only Mr. Lombardo’s claims that freshwater is not pushing back against “40 years of seawater intrusion,” it also directly contradicts the HWG’s boilerplate claim in all their reports required for the Coastal Commission slant well test permit, that pumping 2 million gallons a day at the Cemex site has no impact on seawater intrusion. When the testing began in April of 2015, the salinity at the slant well was 83%. As of the latest report in the graph, May 21, 2019 the salinity at that spot is 71% and the trend line for freshening is dramatic. Big rain percolating into the Dunes Sand and 180 aquifers is the most obvious explanation for this change.

    The CPUC has not the slightest care for the impacts of seawater intrusion on our economy. But you do. The Coastal Commission has not made a final decision, but their chief staff person for coastal desalination permits, Tom Luster, has shown a history of being immune to new information. He “was principal author of the Coastal Commission’s March 2004 report titled “Seawater Desalination and the California Coastal Act,” and in 2003 served as co-chair of the state’s Desalination Task Force.” Mr. Luster appears to be ideologically stuck in 2004, and to have an ego that wants his own work to be the landmark decision, regardless of the changing facts and technology on the ground. That is bad science.

    Cal Am knows how to grease the political wheels, and how to make legal arguments, but they also facilitate bad science, the type that has a preconceived outcome. They will do everything to achieve it, including ignoring any inconvenient data, no matter how compelling. I once told the Coastal Commission that hydrogeologists are like lawyers; they know who pays the bills, and they work to achieve their clients desired outcomes. That is also the type of “scientist” who comprise the Hydrogeological Working Group (HWG).

    I’ve attached the graph below and encourage you to use it to seek objective scientific interpretations of it’s significance. I believe it undeniably shows that our recent wet winters does push back against seawater intrusion, and that every brackish gallon at the coast is a sentry against salty disaster further inland. Brackish water is a valued resource in and of itself, a bulwark against ruin. I have been saying that since 2014.

    Your decision on Monday did not change what is happening underground at Cemex even today one single bit.

    With deepest disappointment,

    Michael Baer

  5. Thank you for bringing attention to the issue. Every resident of Peninsula should be aware of another shameful vote from corrupted criminal CA politicians. I wasn’t expecting anything else. So much for moving into quiet sleepy town away from corruption of Bay Area. John Phillips, Luis Alejo, and Chris Lopez should be publicly shamed via every possible venue.

  6. This decision will impact this area for generations. It will impact each water user as an individual as well as both primary industries in the county: Ag and Tourism. It particularly will affect Marina residents. Salt water intrusion could be a real result of the wrong decision. Since there is no repercussion for missing the first two state water commission deadlines, why not take time to make sure the best option is being chosen for all. It may be frustrating for those who are tired of delays, but it will be more than frustrating if our ground water table is ruined–it will threaten all future life in this area. We don’t want to become the world’s next desert. There are already too many created by human impact and poor choices.

  7. As a new resident of Marina, I was especially pleased to learn that we have a municipal water utility company. Conservation programs are also in place, so I quickly set about converting the huge front yard lawn to a native plant, butterfly-attracting habitat. I also learned that around Marina there are 77 lots which were set aside to recharge the aquifer via rainwater percolation. In the meantime, I learned that a large corporation is eager to gain access to the aquifer which lies beneath Marina. This is outrageous on so many levels!

  8. Thank you Royal Caulkins for your much needed reporting on this issue. I continue to be dismayed at the lengths Cal Am and its supporters will go,’and the power they weld, to keep the stagnant and costly status quo regarding water technology and environmental justice.
    I keep coming back to a simple question in my mind regarding this issue. Why in this area of great abundance are we not creating and developing systems and solutions that are the best? There’s nothing that I’ve read that points definitively to this slant well technology being the best
    we can do. If that’s the case what harm if we pause and rethink?
    One can’t help but feel that there is a stubborn, heals dug in tenacity and low tech thinking on the part of the week’s majority vote of the SVS.
    They are a powerful group to be sure, backed mightily with big money and by their desires to keep old things new and 21st science at bay. What they hadn’t bargained on are the tenacious water advocates and their allies.
    Truthful and accurate reporting and illuminating the facts are powerful allies!
    Keep up the good and great truth!

  9. Blatantly false arguments from Supervisors Phillips, Alejo and Lopez claiming jobs would be lost and water supply would dry up ignored the real issues of the Public Water Now and Marina Coast appeals. In their attempts to give themselves political cover they’ve made it clear who controls them.

    The appeals asked the BOS for a subsequent EIR to look at serious problems with Cal Am’s desal project and compare it to the far more cost effective and environmentally superior water supply project, the Pure Water Monterey Expansion.

    Cal Am’s desal would increase seawater intrusion in the Salinas Valley Basin and destroy Marina’s water supply, to which Cal Am has no legal right. The PWM expansion uses recycled water, far less energy, creates less GHG emissions and causes no seawater intrusion.

    The desal plant will cost Cal Am customers $1.2 billion dollars on their water bills for the next 30 years.

    The expansion of the Pure Water Monterey project could meet the Peninsula’s current water demand and future growth needs for $175 million over 30 years.

    Why not go with the better water supply solution? The problem is Cal Am’s $123 million profit would evaporate. Cal Am is trying to block the PWM expansion by refusing to but the water.

    County leadership failed the Peninsula on this key water decision and caved to Cal Am and their supporters in hospitality, the Chamber of Commerce and agriculture. But Ag has nothing to gain from this desal plant and plenty to lose in groundwater.

    Are Phillips, Alejo and Lopez just looking to their next pet project or campaign contribution?

    It’s outrageous for Salinas Valley Supervisors to force Cal Am’s desal on the Peninsula, when they won’t bear the cost. If they want this so badly, maybe they should pay for it!

    Melodie Chrislock
    Public Water Now, Managing Director

  10. So are Salinas supervisors getting a kickback from Cal-Am? Why else would they do this? Is there any way to find out how much they personally have been promised because you know they are getting something I would love to know.

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