Cal Am pulls plug on desal plan Promises a better approach next time


By Royal Calkins

Maybe I’m just too cynical. Or is it skeptical? I get confused, but I know that I don’t take much at face value, especially when it comes from Cal Am Water.

California American Water Co., that’s the official name, told the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday that it is withdrawing its application for a large and expensive desalination plant on the Marina shore, so there will not be a big public hearing and vote on the matter Thursday.

If that was it, if that was the end of the on-again, off-again, the-meter’s-always-running project, it would be huge local news. The desalination proposal, previous proposals and the larger debate over increasing the Monterey Peninsula water supply have dominated local political discourse for the past few decades, generating strong and increasingly inflexible opinions on both sides of the divide.

But it is not a case of “this is it,” according to a late Wednesday news release from Cal Am, the principal supplier of drinking water for most of the Peninsula, conspicuously not including Marina, where the plant would be built over a fair amount of civic opposition.

“Many factors contributed to our decision to withdraw,” California American Water president Rich Svindland said in the news release. “We recognize the social and environmental justice concerns and want to spend more time with Marina stakeholders on those issues, as well as with our own customers on our proposed enhanced customer assistance program. Because the commission must meet deadlines associated with the Permit Streamlining Act, withdrawing and refiling our application is the best way to allow more time for these things to occur.”

Svindland didn’t mention that the Coastal Commission staff has fairly loudly recommended that the project be rejected for all sorts of reasons, various violations of the state Coastal Act and various threats to water quality and endangered species — on top of the concerns about impact on those who live near the plant and have little reason to get with the plan.

The environmental justice issues Svindland mentions have been stirred into the debate in recent months but most notably in the past week with the Los Angeles Times printing a significant article on how residents of largely blue-collar Marina aren’t looking at any benefits from the plant although much of the long-term environmental burden would be theirs. That was followed this week by an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee penned by Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado and Seaside Mayor Ian Oglesby. The opinion piece took direct aim at Cal Am’s intentions and the potential impacts.

In response to Wednesday’s announcement, Delgado said “the proposed groundwater extraction and desalination project is fatally flawed because of unacceptable impacts” on environmental justice, water use, habitat protection, sea level rise and public access to the coast.

Delgado said it’s his hope that the community can quickly come up with a “more immediate, affordable and environmentally acceptable water supply solution” in conjunction with the ongoing Pure Water Monterey recycled water project.

Said Vice Mayor Gail Morton, “We want to ensure that any development within our city boundaries and on our coastline is environmentally sound, economically warranted, and socially just.”

So, I could go on and on. As a community, we’ve managed to make water availability a giant political issue and an equally important credibility issue. If Cal Am is to be believed, it will be back with a newish plan in fairly short order after it contemplates the concept of environmental justice and rejiggers its pricing structure to take some of the plant’s financial burden off lower-income residents. (Some will remember how Cal Am did much the same thing with the Peninsula business community, offering special rates for businesses promising to be careful about their water use in exchange for political support of the desalination project.)

Here’s what I think. I think Cal Am will quickly realize that it will take too long to get the company bean counters on the same page with Marina residents who wonder what’s in it for them. Two years ago, Cal Am said the plant would cost about $330 million. Two years later, they’re using the same number. I submit they know what the real number is now and what it might be after company officials host focus groups and take some of the edge off its infamous rate structure, arguably making Peninsula water the nation’s most expensive.

Instead of going through all that, I’m thinking that Cal Am’s going to court in order to recoup its investment.  A key figure in the Peninsula water fight, and not George Riley, by the way, said Wednesday he expects the company to sue somebody in order to speed things up without having to hold all those community meetings.

His reason for thinking that way? He deals with Cal Am on a regular basis.

My reason? Simpler. The short Cal Am letter to the Coastal Commission asking to cancel this week’s big meeting and withdrawing the application was cc’ed to just two people — the company’s corporate counsel and the company’s gunslinger of an outside counsel. Not to the Cal Am board or its executive staff. Not to the state Public Utilities Commission or the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which is poised to execute a public takeover of the water system in the coming year. Not to George Riley or Bruce Delgado or Ian Oglesby.

I’m likely reading too much into cc’s. I’m like that. But Cal Am has a lot of money at stake here and might figure that the courts are key. Someday, the Public Utilities Commission, which ordered the desalination project to begin with, will determine how much of Cal Am’s desalination investment will be passed on to its customers and how much the company’s shareholders will have to eat. I see the company going to court to move all that along sooner rather than later, especially when the later option offers no guarantees.

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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