California American Water service area

A map of the California American Water service area that the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District is seeking to take over. 

From the safety of their coronavirus shelters, the water warriors of the Monterey Peninsula carry on the fight, and so can you. 

These are the two battles that are coming up.

The environmental merits of removing the local water system from private ownership and placing it under the control of a government agency will be discussed in a virtual public scoping meeting on April 21 at 5pm, via Zoom video conference

It’s the latest stage in a process that started in 2018 when voters approved Measure J, directing the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to buy out the local water system controlled by California American Water, if feasible. A financial analysis found that a public takeover would be feasible, and save ratepayers money, even if Cal Am resists as the company has pledged to do. 

In addition to the scoping meeting, the water district is also collecting comments via email. Write to comments@mpwmd.net by May 6 at 5pm. The comments will be incorporated into an eventual environmental impact report, an analysis that is required by California law whenever government authorities undertake major actions. (The scoping process is to determine what factors that future EIR should take into account with a thorough analysis.) 

The EIR is one of several steps that the water district must take before making an offer to Cal Am to buy its local water systems and production wells, utility plants, water rights, water supply contracts, and financial records. If Cal Am declines the offer, the district would attempt to force a sale through eminent domain. 

The other water battle is related to the first, but it’s focused not on the question of who would own the water but rather where the water would come from. The traditional supply for the Monterey Peninsula is the Carmel River, but there’s a state order protecting the river habitat and a major reduction in pumping is required by the end of 2021. 

Some would like to see Cal Am build a major desalination plant near Marina. Critics of the desalination project argue that it’s too expensive and unnecessary, promoting instead an alternative water project. The alternative is to expand the region’s brand-new water recycling facility, known as Pure Water Monterey, which might help produce enough water to satisfy demand for several decades. 

The water recycling expansion project has undergone a $1 million environmental review, which found only minimal impacts. A related technical memo found that there would be enough wastewater to supply the plant even in the event of a drought. 

On Monday, April 27 at 6pm, the board members of Monterey One Water will decide whether to certify the results of the environmental review and begin talks with Cal Am about the possibility of selling the recycled water to the utility. The public can participate in the Monterey One Water board meeting via video. The decision will likely be made on political, rather technical grounds. 

As Monterey County Supervisor John Philips, who serves on the Monterey One Water board, said on March 3, “We have been thrust into this water war and we have to make a decision one or another and it has kind of divided our board.” 

Supporters of Cal Am and the desalination project see this recycled water project as a threat especially as the California Coastal Commission seems poised to block desalination. 

Others are saying that the environmental review of the recycled water expansion should be certified precisely because desalination is in jeopardy. The most recent person to make that case is Dave Stoldt, the general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. In a virtual meeting on April 20 at 6pm, his board will decide whether to endorse his position and launch letter of support for the environmental review.

The draft letter notes that the MPWMD spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the review: “The District took on the majority of the financial risk, for which it would like to see the outcome completed,” it reads. The letter also says that certifying the review would mean having a “shovel-ready” water project as a backup.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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