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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