Coastal Commission staff wants more study of desal impact Breaking News: No Cal Am desal vote next week, and consultant for Monterey Peninsula Water Management District finds that public takeover of Cal Am is economically feasible.

See the newly released feasibility report here.

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By Royal Calkins

Cal Am Water’s experts may have seriously underestimated the potential impact the company’s proposed desalination plant would have on the existing water supply nearby, the staff of the California Coastal Commission concluded in a report released this week as a supplement to its exhaustive report on the overall project.

Possibly because the staff is recommending further study before a decision on the plant’s fate, the Coastal Commission is no longer scheduled to vote on the overall desal project Nov. 14 at its Half Moon Bay meeting and is likely to make a decision in March, commission official Tom Luster said Thursday. A public hearing will still be held in Half Moon Bay and another will be scheduled before a final decision on the plant, Luster said.

The full staff report made public a week ago recommends that the commission deny Cal Am’s request to build a desal plant on the Marina coastline to help address the Peninsula’s water-supply issues. The staff recommends instead that the commission consider the Monterey One Water agency’s water-recycling project as a suitable alternative to the more expensive and more problematic desal proposal.

The staff also concluded that Cal Am’s plans would violate several provisions of California law intended to protect coastal habitat and that the cost of the project would impose an unfair burden on Peninsula residents who are already being charged the highest water rates in the country.

In an attempt to counteract that recommendation, Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips, who is a member of Monterey One Water’s governing board, helped arrange for that board to meet in emergency session today, Nov. 7,  to consider sending a letter to the commission in favor of desalination. That meeting is set for 4 p.m. in the agency’s offices at 5 Harris Court, Building D, in Monterey’s Ryan Ranch.

Phillips had led a successful effort a week ago to support the Cal Am plan by essentially undercutting his own agency’s project by labeling it as only a desalination backup as opposed to a functional alternative. Monterey One Water, formerly known as the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, is working on one project that will treat sewage and agricultural waste water to the point of potability and it plans to start work on a second phase large enough to potentially meet the Peninsula’s water needs without desalination. Phillips prevailed on a 6-4 vote.

Supporters of the Cal Am venture argue that the recycling process can’t be counted on, largely because the supply of wastewater would fluctuate with the weather and the amount of water used in various agricultural processing plants.

Even so, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management Agency concluded that the recycling project, known as Pure Water Monterey, could satisfy the region’s water needs at a cost roughly 20 percent of the cost of desalination.

The commission staff determined that Cal Am’s studies “did not adequately capture some of the aquifer characteristics” near the desal plant site “and therefore may have underestimated the amount of non-seawater Cal-Am’s wells would extract.”

“The set of studies and reviews developed as part of this project presented a relatively wide range of interpretations – ranging from Cal Am’s project expected to have little or no effect on the local or regional groundwater supplies to the project having substantial and extensive effects on water in the basin that could be useful to others,” the staff report continued.

“Key areas of concern or disagreement were: 1) whether the data used in Cal-Am’s modeling and studies were adequate to characterize conditions of the affected aquifers and the likely or potential effects of Cal-Am’s water extractions from those aquifers; 2) whether Cal-Am’s proposed groundwater extraction would induce seawater intrusion or adversely affect any water in those aquifers that may be suitable to treat as fresh water or drinking water; and 3) whether design changes – such as extending Cal-Am’s slant wells further offshore than currently proposed – would eliminate or reduce all or some of any identified adverse effects.”

Though the Cal Am plant would process ocean water, it also would rely on a steady supply of brackish water and fresh water pumped from the coastal aquifer, raising water rights issues as well as technical issues. If the Coastal Commission allows Cal Am to continue with the desal plant, water rights litigation is almost a certainty.

Cal Am and the Peninsula itself are operating under state order to reduce their reliance on the overtaxed Carmel River and face the prospect of serious water cutbacks if an additional water supply isn’t developed in the next few years.

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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

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