By Royal Calkins
As public opposition to Cal Am Water’s proposed desal plant continues to grow, two Cal Am backers are playing political games to help the expensive and what critics see as an unnecessary venture become reality.
That will play out Monday evening at a meeting of the Water One Monterey board. Water One Monterey, also known as M1W, is behind the Pure Water wastewater recycling project that would eliminate the need for the hugely more expensive desalination plant.
On the agenda is a motion by Del Rey Oaks City Councilman John Gaglioti to postpone the release of the draft environmental impact report for an expanded Pure Water plant from Nov. 7 to sometime after a pivotal California Coastal Commission vote on the desal plant. Knowing that the environmental impact report will likely bolster the case for the recycling project, Gaglioti reportedly said at a Pure Water committee meeting that he doesn’t want the EIR to be “weaponized” against the Cal Am project.
If Gaglioti prevails, significant information already in government’s hands would not be provided to the Coastal Commission before it makes a billion-dollar decision affecting every water user from Pebble Beach to Castroville.
“How is that in the public interest?” asked Melodie Chrislock, president of Public Water Now, which is pushing for a public takeover of the Cal Am utility.
Just last week, Chrislock’s group released a letter signed by 24 elected officials on the Peninsula urging the Coastal Commission to reject the desal plan, which has dragged on through financial and legal issues, conflicts of interest, engineering mistakes and debate about its untested technology. The commission is scheduled to consider the desal project Nov. 14 in Half Moon Bay. The commission staff had been expected to release its recommendations last week but that has been rescheduled to Tuesday.
Gaglioti, who has often voiced support for the desal project, is a principal in Groundwork Renewables, which develops large solar energy installations. It has offices in Sand City, Mexico City and Los Angeles. He could not be reached to comment Sunday.
Also on the agenda is a motion by a second M1W board member, Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips. As it stands, M1W literature describes the recycling project as an “alternative” to the desal project. Phillips’s motion would change that to “backup.”
It’s a seemingly minor change except that the Coastal Commission has traditionally favored less environmentally intrusive alternatives to environmentally problematic projects. The seemingly subtle change of language could have a less-than-subtle impact on the Coastal Commission decision. Generally speaking, a backup is a companion to something while an alternative is a replacement. The Pure Water project began as a backup but morphed into a true alternative as the cost of the desalination project grew and grew and conservation efforts on the Peninsula became more effective than anticipated.
Phillips, a retired judge with outsized political pull, is in his second -term as a county supervisor. He represents the Prunedale area and the rest of northern Monterey County and has consistently voted in favor of Cal Am and business interests in general.
When Phillips and two Salinas Valley supervisors voted to approve county permits for the desal plant, Peninsula activists accused them of ignoring the wishes of coastal residents who would be forced to pay for the desalination project even though they are already paying the country’s highest water rates. Phillips said he was influenced by the large number of Salinas Valley residents who work on the Peninsula and need more water in order to keep their jobs afloat.
He didn’t respond to a request to comment.
The M1W board meeting involving the Gaglioti and Phillips efforts is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the M1W offices, 5 Harris Court, Building D, in Monterey’s Ryan Ranch off Highway 68. Longtime county residents may remember that M1W was once known as the Monterey County Regional Pollution Control District.
In the agenda packet for the meeting, the M1W engineering staff reported that pushing release of the draft EIR back even a week could delay approval of the final EIR by a month, making it less likely that the Peninsula could meet a state-imposed deadline for reducing the region’s reliance on water from the Carmel River. Failing to meet the deadline could result in reduced water availability.
The political drama over desalination is playing out against the backdrop of community effort to force the privately owned Cal Am to be taken over by a public agency as voters decided in a ballot measure.
The feasibility of a public takeover is being studied by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management Agency, which recently calculated that the expanded Pure Water project could meet the Peninsula’s water needs for the next 40 to 50 years. The projected cost is $190 million over 30 years as opposed to the cost of desal, which would be some $1.2 billion over the same period.
The M1W board is a little-noticed body made up mostly of representatives of various government jurisdictions. As with most such groups hereabouts, it is sharply divided politically. Those few who have paid close attention to this board say they expect Gaglioti and Phillips to prevail in close votes with Salinas City Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa as a likely swing vote.
In addition to Gaglioti and Philips, the members are:
• Chairman Ron Stefani, a director of the Castroville Community Services District, firstname.lastname@example.org
• Sand City Mayor Mary Ann Carbone email@example.com
• Linda Grier, a director of the Boronda County Sanitation District firstname.lastname@example.org
• Monterey City Council Member Tyller Williamson email@example.com
• Pacific Grove City Council Member Nick Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
• Salinas City Council Member Gloria De La Rosa email@example.com
• Seaside City Council Member Jason Campbell firstname.lastname@example.org
• Tom Moore, director of the Marina Coast Water District email@example.com