Opinion: Public Water Now

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Read a follow-up opinion piece: “Cal Am” by Chris Cook


By Melodie Chrislock

California American water customers on the Monterey Peninsula are being asked to foot the bill for a $329 million desalination plant to solve our long-standing water supply shortage.

In 1995 the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Cal Am to stop overpumping the Carmel River. It issued a cease-and-desist order with a deadline of December 2021. But is Cal Am’s desal project the only viable solution? Cal Am has had 25 years to solve this problem and in the meantime another solution has emerged. Monterey One Water, the region’s wastewater treatment agency, has developed Pure Water Monterey, an advanced recycled water project that can provide the needed water at a far lower cost. PWM will begin delivering water shortly and could be expanded in place of building Cal Am’s proposed desal plant. The price tag for the PWM expansion would be $60 million.

When the cost of these two projects are compared over 30 years with financing and operation and maintenance costs, the difference is staggering. Over this time period, Cal Am’s Desal would cost $1.2 billion while the Pure Water Monterey expansion would be only $190 million.

But the cost in dollars is not the only comparison that should be made. The environmental cost comparison is also dramatic.

This desal plant would draw from the already overdrafted Salinas Valley groundwater basin, creating seawater intrusion and endangering Marina’s water supply.

The desal plant would use 38,000 megawatt hours of energy a year, while the PWM expansion would use a mere 45 megawatt hours a year from 100 percent renewable energy generated from landfill gas. The desal would produce 250,050 metric tons of carbon dioxide over 30 years, while the PWM Expansion would produce only 1,020 metric tons of the same substance. That’s right, Cal Am’s desal would produce 254 times more carbon dioxide than the PWM Expansion at a time when our climate is in crisis.

Another big problem is that this desal plant does not draw from the ocean; it draws groundwater to which Cal Am has no legal right. It would draw 16,000 acre-feet annually from the already overdrafted Salinas Valley groundwater basin, creating seawater intrusion and endangering Marina’s water supply. It also would destroy seven acres of rare dunes and environmentally sensitive habitat and adds 8 million gallons of brine discharge daily to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.

In comparison, the PWM expansion has no coastal impact, reduces discharge of waste water to the bay and would protect against seawater intrusion.

Some have argued that we need this desal plant to meet our future demand. But recently the Water Management District released a comprehensive report showing that either project could meet the Peninsula’s future demand for decades. So which one would you choose? Which one do you want to pay for?

Cal Am’s desal is clearly not in the public interest. The PWN expansion should be the preferred solution to the Peninsula’s water woes. It can meet the cease-and-desist deadline and lift the moratorium. And it comes at a fraction of the economic and environmental cost.

The California Coastal Commission will have the last word on this. On Nov. 14, the commission will meet in Half Moon Bay to vote on whether to permit Cal Am’s desal or not.

Letters to the Coastal Commission are the last chance for the public to have a say. Send your email to CalAmMonterey@coastal.ca.gov and ask the commissioners to deny Cal Am’s coastal development permit because there is a better alternative. Public Water Now will be organizing buses for those who want to attend. Contact Public Water Now at info@publicwaternow.org for more details and updates.

Public Water Now has compiled this Comparison Chart for quick reference in comparing both water supply projects.

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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.