Cal Am’s Desal is Not the Solution — Here’s Why Coastal Commission hearing on the issue is Nov. 17 in Salinas


By Melodie Chrislock

For the third time since 2019, Cal Am will argue for approval of its proposed desal project to the state Coastal Commission on Nov. 17. In its previous efforts, the Coastal Commission staff recommended denial. But now the commission is under intense pressure from Gov. Gavin Newson to approve all desal projects in California. This is the same project, but it appears that the Coastal Commission staff is now recommending approval due to the governor’s pressure.

If this desal project is approved, everyone on the Peninsula will pay for it. The current cost is estimated at $426 million. It would provide 5,000 to 6,250 acre-feet of water a year. To pay for this Cal Am is expected to raise water bills by 50% to 70%.

The Pure Water Monterey Expansion is competing with Cal Am’s desal to solve our water supply shortage. It would add 2,250 acre-feet of new water to the already operating Pure Water Monterey project. It would cost $60 million.

Two water supply and demand studies — one from the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, or MPWMD, and one done by national water planning expert, Peter Mayer — have shown that the expansion project can meet the Peninsula’s growth needs for decades without desal.

The Peninsula’s demand for water has dropped steadily from 15,000 acre-feet in 2004. The average demand over the last five years is 9,725 acre-feet.

According to the MPWMD Water Supply and Demand Forecast, we will need an additional 943 acre-feet of water for growth by 2050. The water district used the population and economic growth forecast from the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments to predict future demand.

They also looked at historic demand. We currently have a moratorium on new water hookups, but in the 10 years before the moratorium the average new water used for growth was 16 acre-feet a year.

If we need less than 800 acre-feet of new water for growth, why does Cal Am claim we will need 5,000 to 6,000 acre-feet?

Cal Am’s demand estimate is much higher because they used the same AMBAG growth forecast, but then added growth factors that AMBAG had already included, essentially double and triple counting to achieve their demand estimate and justify their proposed desal project.

Can we afford this water?

The cost of Cal Am’s desal water is extraordinary. It would run over $7,000 an acre-foot. Most desal water runs around $2,000 an acre-foot. Cal Am’s desal would add $75 to $105 a month to a typical water bill of $150.

Monterey Peninsula residents currently pay the highest water costs in California for a system serving 90,000 people or more. For many customers Cal Am bills already run hundreds of dollars a month. How can we pay an additional 50% to 70%?

If Cal Am’s desal water is not needed for growth and is too expensive for current users, where is the market for this water?

A major reason this water is so expensive is that Cal Am’s desal would force Monterey Peninsula customers to pay millions of dollars every year to subsidize Castroville’s water. Cal Am’s Return Water Agreement states that 690 acre-feet will be sold to Castroville at $110 an acre-foot. But this desal water would cost $7,000 or more an acre-foot to produce. Who pays the difference? Cal Am’s Peninsula customers do. Peninsula ratepayers certainly did not agree to this, and for the most part they are completely unaware of this agreement.

This Return Water Agreement is the only way Cal Am can get around the prohibition on exporting groundwater from the Salinas Groundwater basin.

There are major environmental costs with Cal Am’s desal

The desalination process requires substantially more energy than other forms of water purification. Cal Am’s desal energy consumption would require 52,000 megawatt hours per year. As a result, it would create 8,000 metric tons of CO2 per year and become the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the Central Coast.

This desal plant would also add 8 million gallons of brine discharge per day to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.

Seawater intrusion is already a problem in this area. This desal plant would draw an estimated 17,300 acre-feet of brackish groundwater from the over drafted Salinas River Groundwater Basin. Its wells would pull from the same groundwater that supplies the Marina Coast Water District. Marina would get none of this water, but it would suffer the environmental damage to its pristine beaches and the risk to its aquifer from more seawater intrusion. Because Marina is considered a disadvantaged community, siting Cal Am’s desal in Marina has raised environmental justice concerns for the Coastal Commission.

The Coastal Commission hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Nov. 17 in the Monterey County Board of Supervisors chambers in Salinas. The meeting will also be carried live on Zoom. Persons wishing to testify in person or by Zoom must sign up on the Coastal Commission website here by Nov. 16.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.



Melodie Chrislock

About Melodie Chrislock

Melodie Chrislock is the director of Public Water Now, the citizens’ group that organized and promoted the Measure J initiative that requires the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to pursue a possible public takeover of Cal Am. She lives in Carmel.