Opinion: Cal Am looks to the future

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Read last week’s opinion piece, “Public Water Now” by Melodie Chrislock


By Chris Cook

As a kid growing up on the Monterey Peninsula, our water shortages were always a problem – and a hot political topic. Drought measures were a regular feature of these conversations. I remember seeing bumper stickers saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t want a dam.” At the time, I was not aware of why a dam was before the voters, I just knew it didn’t pass primarily because of project costs estimated at $125 million.

After returning home from college and Peace Corps service in Africa, I became a California American Water customer and began learning about the Peninsula’s water supply challenges, environmental impacts and current water costs. The primary topic at the time was the anticipated removal of an existing dam on the Carmel River.

Times have obviously changed. With a new dam out of the question because of environmental concerns, various water supply options have been evaluated – and rejected. These include everything from fog collectors to towing Spragg Bags of water from Humboldt Bay. The number of potential and alternative projects studied throughout our local history is in the dozens. The state, through an in-depth environmental study, ultimately concluded desalination was the preferred method to meet our water needs. Needless to say, each new proposal came with a higher price tag, and eventually, after decades of failing to agree on a solution, pressure came from the state in the form of mandated pumping reductions on the Carmel River.

While cities on the Monterey Peninsula have been working to address housing needs and the business community is actively looking to create more jobs, there is one component they all need to complete their plans – reliable, drought-proof access to water.

Our water shortage produced limitations on development that was felt by many of my friends who also grew up here. As young parents, they are now challenged by the rising cost of housing and the relative lack of quality jobs. While the cities on the Monterey Peninsula have been working to address housing needs and the business community is actively looking to create more jobs, there is one component they all need to complete their plans – reliable, drought-proof access to water.

It is good to know that with so many missed water supply opportunities, there have been lessons learned. California American Water’s Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project doesn’t put all our eggs in one basket. It is a combination of sources – desalination, Pure Water Monterey (recycled water) and augmented storage of winter river water. Monterey One Water and Monterey Peninsula Water Management District are our partners in this portfolio approach.  This also means many of the new water supply facilities will be owned by public agencies.

After decades of challenges, water remains a complex topic on which people are often quick to point out negatives rather than highlight opportunities.  Here are some of the positives of the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project:

  • It is an environmental project to benefit the health of the Carmel River and Seaside Basin, initiated by regulatory requirements and sized based on a thorough review by state and federal agencies.
  • It will protect our coastal resources. The desalination plant will use an existing outfall for dilution of brine, subsurface wells to avoid intake of marine life, and carbon free energy, making it the new environmental gold standard for desal. No other desalination plant in the United States has achieved all three.
  • The majority of project funding will be covered through millions in state grants and low interest loans. Any future desal plants may not have the same funding opportunities and will likely face increased project costs, due to escalation and increased regulatory requirements.
  • A portion of the desalinated water will be provided to Castroville, a severely disadvantaged community with seawater intrusion issues.
  • It is compatible with the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s proposal for coastal extraction wells to help reduce existing seawater intrusion.
  • It will provide a long-term, drought-proof, diverse water supply for the Monterey Peninsula for decades to come. With climate change, implementation of reliable, sustainable water solutions are more important than ever.

Roughly every quarter century, starting with the construction of the first dam on the Carmel River in the 1880s, there has been a new proposal to fix our water supply. Now, with construction started on the desal pipeline — and desal plant construction anticipated to begin early next year — it is exciting to know that the Monterey Peninsula can finally put the chronic shortage of water supply in the rear view mirror for our generation — and the next.

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Chris Cook

About Chris Cook

Christopher Cook is Director of Operations and General Manager for California American Water’s Monterey division. He grew up surfing around the Monterey area and decades later has kept a connection with water through his work and hobbies. He received his BS in Mechanical Engineering and from UCSD and MBA from Santa Clara University.