BREAKING: Coastal Commission staff says thumbs down to Cal Am desal plan

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with action from Monday night’s meeting of the Monterey One Water board and with reaction from Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado.

By Royal Calkins

The staff of the California Coastal Commission is recommending that the state agency deny Cal Am Water Co.’s request to be allowed to build a full-scale desalination plant on the Marina coastline.

In a 110-page staff report made public late Monday, the commission staff said the Pure Water Monterey recycling project has emerged as a “feasible, well-developed” alternative that would cause “far fewer environmental impacts than Cal Am’s proposed project.” Among the advantages of the Pure Water Now project, the staff concluded, is that the infrastructure sits well away from the coast while the desal plant would be built on the beach.

The staff recommendation goes next to the full commission, a politically appointed body that will consider the matter Nov. 14 in Half Moon Bay. Public Water Now, a grassroots organization pushing for a public takeover of Cal Am, plans to bus area residents to the meeting.

The full commission is entitled to adopt, amend or reject the staff’s recommendation. Representatives of Cal Am and groups opposing the plant have met with the commission staff and both sides are undoubtedly aiming lobbying efforts at the 12-member commission.

Coincidentally or not, the staff report was released just minutes before Monterey One Water, the agency pursuing the Pure Water recycling project, met to consider two motions intended to undercut the impact that project could have on approval or rejection of the desalination project. Monterey One Water board member John Phillips, a Monterey County supervisor, prevailed on his motion to have the recycling project labeled a “backup” rather than an “alternative” though the Coastal Commission’s professional staff views it as meaningful alternative. On a 6-4 vote, the Monterey One Water board agreed with Phillips, who is closely aligned with hotel and development interests that see desalination as key to economic growth on the Peninsula. Opponents of that position argued, unsuccessfully, that highly expensive desalinated water combined with the already high cost of water locally would actually hurt the economy.

Seaside City Councilman Jason Campbell said Phillips’s motion almost amounted to a “Cal Am loyalty oath.”

In light of the Coastal Commission staff recommendation, a second Monterey One Water board member, Del Rey Oaks City Councilman John Gaglioti, withdrew his motion to postpone publication of the environmental impact report for the recycling project. Gaglioti, an outspoken Cal Am proponent, had proposed pushing that release date back until after the Nov. 14 Coastal Commission meeting so that the recycling plant EIR couldn’t be used as a weapon against the desalination project.

Cal Am’s proposal to build a $400 million-plus desal plant where the Cemex cement plant now sits is the latest in a series of plans intended to respond a state order reducing the amount of water that Peninsula homes and businesses can extract from the overtaxed Carmel River. Debate over the best approach to the looming state mandate has been by far the most significant political issue on the Peninsula for at least the past decade. That debate has helped to create two sharply opposed camps — local environmental and good-government activists on the one hand worried about the environmental effects and giant price tags connected to desalination and, on the other hand, business interests who argue that an additional water supply is necessary to support the tourist and real estate industries.

Retired dentist and veteran activist Dan Turner noted in his address to the board that Cal Am had cut a deal with the business community, reducing its water rates dramatically in exchange for continuing political support.

Monday’s staff report clearly amounted to a significant victory for the enviro side, led principally by George Riley, who has also led the continuing move for a public takeover of Cal Am. However, an up or down decision by the Coastal Commission will be affected by lobbying and political activism being carried out on a much larger, statewide stage. The coastal commissioners are political appointees who owe allegiances to the governor, state legislators and campaign contributors in various regions up and down the California coast. Though the commission was created two generations ago to help protect the coast from overdevelopment, some commissioners considered cozy with environmental interests have seen their appointments suddenly rescinded by Democratic governors as well as Republicans.

“It’s not over til it’s over,” Monterey Realtor Jeff Davi told the Monterey One Water board Monday evening. During the session, he sat in a cluster with other Cal Am supporters, including hotel manager John Narigi, development lawyer Tony Lombardo, Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Steadman, and Farm Bureau executive Norm Groot. Davi, formerly the state real estate commissioner, said that watching four decades of Peninsula water politics was like being in a never-ending episode of Twilight Zone.

Narigi, who has fought bitterly on Cal Am’s behalf, even once ordering his entire staff to attend a government meeting related to desalination, produced the oddest statement of the evening when he offered, without explanation, “I am not a big fan of Cal Am personally.”

At one point, retired golf course manager and hospitality industry lobbyist Gary Richards shouted “Shame on you!” to anyone in the room who has ever voiced support for affordable housing without simultaneously taking up Cal Am’s cause.

Standing apart from that cluster but with the others in spirit was pipeline engineer and former GOP official Paul Bruno.

The Cal Am fan club was outnumbered by other camp, which included Land Watch executive director Michael De Lapa, Public Water Now director Meldodie Chrislock.

Monterey One Water staffers and people in the audience were on their phones and laptops to scan the Coastal Commission staff report as the meeting progressed. Riley, the Public Water Now founder who now sits on the Peninsula water manager board, said the distance between desal’s major environmental impacts and the recycling project’s lesser impacts, as summarized in the staff report, was “stunning.”

The staff report spells out several concerns about the desal plant, including its effect on the shoreline, sea-life and habitat and the financial burden that desalination would place on area residents who are already paying more for water than anyone else in the United States. The Peninsula water management agency  has calculated that the recycling project would cost about $190 million over three to four decades while the desalination venture would cost six times that.

“The Commission’s environmental justice staff conducted a site visit and interviews with a number of people raising these concerns,” the report says. “ . . . (C)ommission staff concluded that Cal-Am’s project would create substantial hardships for several communities of concern, due to its relatively high water costs, by its potential indirect impacts to other area water supplies, or due to the presence of Cal-Am’s well field on a site that otherwise would provide priority coastal resource benefits such as habitat restoration, public access to the shoreline, and recreational opportunities.”

Up for consideration by the full commission is Cal Am’s application to proceed with a plant intended to allow Peninsula residents to stop drawing an unsustainable amount of water from the Carmel River, and appeals of various related actions.

“The project’s well field within the city of Marina would be built within an extensive area of coastal dune ESHA (environmentally sensitive habitat area) that provides habitat for several sensitive species, and portions of the project’s pipelines within the Commission’s consolidated review jurisdiction would similarly be built in areas that consist of ESHA and that support a number of sensitive species.

“The proposed project could adversely affect up to about 35 acres of ESHA. The project is inconsistent with requirements of both the (Marina Local Coastal Plan) and the Coastal Act that allow uses in ESHA only if they are dependent on those habitat resources.

“The proposed project is also inconsistent with a coastal hazards provision of the City’s LCP that requires proposed development be sited to avoid coastal hazards for its expected economic life. The proposed project’s well field would be sited at a location where it could be adversely affected by coastal erosion and the associated inland movement of foredunes that could bury the well heads.

“. . .  The proposed project would involve placement of fill in coastal waters in the form of new or modified outfall diffusers and monitoring buoys. These types of proposals are subject to the alternatives analysis of Coastal Act 30233, which allows such fill only if there are no feasible less damaging alternatives, if feasible mitigation measures have been provided, and for certain uses, such as coastal-dependent industrial facilities. As described below in the discussion of conformity to Coastal Act Section 30260, there is a feasible and less damaging alternative to the proposed fill, so the project would not conform.”

The bulk of the staff report was issued Monday but a section on hydrology and groundwater won’t be available until Friday because of delays attributed to the PG&E power outages. Monterey One Water director Tom Moore, who also sits on the Marina Coast Water District board, said he finds it unbelievable that the desalination project could be on the brink of approval although Cal Am does not possess legal rights to the brackish groundwater it intends to convert into drinking water. If the Cal Am project is approved, litigation over the water rights would likely follow almost immediately.

On Tuesday afternoon, Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado released a press statement on behalf of the city that praised the Coastal Commission staff’s recommendations. “The Coastal Commission’s report is a thorough … thesis on why Cal Am’s project should be denied in order to give all of us long term coastal protection and environmental justice,” Delgado said.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.


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

7 thoughts on “BREAKING: Coastal Commission staff says thumbs down to Cal Am desal plan

  1. Royal, thank you for your article and the information you have highlighted. There are a few misstatements or misconceptions in it that I want to comment on.
    The CCCs staff inaccurately says that the plant will be built right on the coast – partially true. The wells are on the coast (relatively small foot print), the processing plant itself (big footprint) will be immediately next door to the Pure Water Monterey processing facility – well inland from the coast.
    At the meeting last night the M1W board eventually got around to reminding itself and those in the audience that it’s original mission was to clean up dirtied water and make it safe to discharge into the ocean before it became a producer of tertiary treated water for agriculture and now potable water. They finally settled on restating their March 2019 resolution that the Pure Water Expansion possibility should be a backup to any proposed desalinization project – not an alternative. David Stoldt and George Riley along with some members of the board reminded those in attendance that the Pure Water project has always intended to be part of a three legged stool – ASR, Desal, and Advance Purification of waste water. It is not a substitute for desalinization.
    Last night became an opportunity for politics – both sides of the issue voicing their entrenched positions. It was all theater as the real decisions are out of the hands of the board.
    George Riley stated he is actually in favor of a desal project, just not in the hands of CALAM. Tom Moore stated that Marina Coast is prepared to either reopen its desal plant or build a bigger one (which, by-the-way, is actually sitting on the coast). So now the real strategy of Marina is coming out – the city does not object to a desal plant so long as it is their’s? Maybe they are being kind of heart, can do it less expensively and save us all money?
    Members of the M1W board cautioned that the source waters for the Pure Water Project can be subject to uncertainty which is one reason (a good one) that it is intended to be a backup, not an alternative. What happens if the food processors in Salinas decide to move their operations away from Salinas and we don’t have their wash water? What happens when the next drought hits and people use less water in the homes and businesses so that less effluent flows to the Marina treatment facility? Sounds like something that George Riley could support. No one wants to pay more for water than we already are; guess I can’t blame George who’s heart is and always has been in the right place.

    1. Great letter Dennis,
      the short story is we are sending water originating in the critically over drafted Salinas Ground Water Basin in order to solve the peninsula’s water issue in order to kill the desal.
      To do this we are depending on a project that has yet to produce a single drop of water and has already missed several critical milestones. Denying the Desal permit sounds crazy and not a viable solution. The best solution for all of us is a water portfolio.
      Reminds me of the people who celebrated the Pied Piper only to realize the price of their foolishness soon after.

  2. I do not mean to be disagreeable, but the suggestion that wastewater reclamation/reuse was an “after thought” of the regional (then MRWPCA, now M1W) wastewater treatment plant is factually untrue. Reclamation/reuse was always part of the original regional sewer consolidation project. As a member of the Monterey County Planning Commission in 1979, we voted on the “Monterey Regional Wastewater Reclamation Study for Agriculture” (MRWRSA) use permit that was funded by USEPA expressly as a component part of the original regional project that was built with federal dollars over a decade later. When the project came online, I was the attorney member of the State Water Resources Control Board. The results of that study were “part and parcel” of the intent of original regional project and have been relied upon to initiate other reclamation projects throughout California for the past three decades.

  3. A simple observation; the source water doesn’t need to come from the CEMEX parcel (sorry CalAm).

    There is an enormous expanse of space from the mouth of the Salinas River, north to Moss Landing, and inland to almost the city limits of Salinas that has many decades worth of brackish water storage. It’s called the seawater intruded 180/400 subbasin.

    The seawater intruded areas of the confined 180 and 400 aquifers have been destroyed by over drafting the past 70 years, by both the city of Salinas and Agriculture; perhaps unintentionally or ignorantly, but destroyed none the less (though in the case of Castroville, it was likely worsened with the MCWRA supplemental CSIP wells that really turbocharged the destruction of that community’s water). The water in the seawater intruded areas is unusable for drinking and unusable for agricultural irrigation.

    A regional solution would simply agree to return any/all fresh water delivered to the Peninsula to the 180/400 subbasin, in the form of tertiary treated irrigation water or injection water to push out sea water in those aquifers. Of course there is money too, but there is always a workable solution to that piece of the puzzle.

    The processed brackish water, besides being a reliable/drought proof source of water for the Peninsula, could also be a water source for Castroville and Salinas.

    The pumping itself could act as a seawater barrier to actually stop seawater intrusion, while other actions (like geo-spacial water injections) could push seawater back towards the coast in the impacted areas.

    I realize studies and science would need to prove all of this out, yet much of it has already been done; in fact, CalAm to an extent did some of it recently (there is decades more science and studies that have been done in the Salinas Valley).

    The reality folks is that this isn’t a super complicated issue, other than all of the emotions and politics (which are worse than emotions these days).

    It’s right there in front of us, a huge pool of unusable water that won’t be too expensive to clean for drinking water and other uses.

    Monterey County, it is time to tear down this wall between the Salinas Valley and the Peninsula, to forge the grand bargain that fixes these water issues once and for all, in a thoughtful, efficient, environmentally and sustainable manner!

    There you go, gift wrap, no charge!

  4. The Monterey Peninsula has 38 miles of coastline from the Carmel Highlands to the Marina City limits. In 2010, when MPWMD staff conducted a survey of landowners along that coastline about locating a desal plant at the coast to supply the Monterey Peninsula, the response ranged from no, to are you kidding, to hell no! Those owners included: State Parks, the Pebble Beach Company, Pacific Grove, Monterey, Sand City, and the Monterey Peninsula Regional Parks District. The Naval Post Graduate School was the only property owner interested in entertaining the concept of a facility on their property. In retrospect, any site south of Marina would have required an open ocean intake in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is about as likely as taking down Hetch Hetchy Dam. The Monterey Peninsula coastline property owners all had their reasons for not locating a public water supply facility on their properties. However, even if technology would allow safe extraction of seawater from the southern Monterey Bay, does anyone believe State Parks or Pebble Beach or Pacific Grove or Monterey or Sand City would permit six new industrial extraction well sites on their beaches? Is the City of Marina supposed to permit that kind of development for the greater good?

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