County moves forward with Cal-Am deal—despite legal roadblocks and a competing plan.
Thursday, June 17, 2004
A panel of talking heads sits in an upstairs room at the Moss Landing harbor. Windows that look out onto the Monterey Bay surround them, and they’re talking about how there’s not enough water for the coastal communities. The view is all waves and fishing boats, and the people in suits—spokespeople from Monterey County, California American Water Co. and its consultants, and Armanasco PR execs—try to convince a leery audience that they are looking at the solution to the county’s water woes.
The speakers say their project—a partnership between Cal-Am and Monterey County—is the one that will fix the dry problem that has plagued the area for decades. They say they’re going to build a big desalination plant somewhere in Moss Landing that will produce about 20,000-acre-feet of water per year. It will bring the Carmel River back to life and more.
The county is under a state mandate to stop over-pumping the river, a practice that is killing steelhead trout and red-legged frogs, both threatened species. That is allegedly the problem that will be fixed by a new water project.
But the proposed desal plant will produce much more than the 10,730-acre-feet that the state says Cal-Am overpumps from the depleted river each year.
Pipes from the facility will also carry potable water to the Peninsula cities, some areas along Highway 68, North County, and the yet-to-be-built communities at Fort Ord.
Every slide in the power point presentation includes a header that says, “The Coastal Water Project: A water supply solution for our coastal communities.”
Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who represents Moss Landing and the rest of North County, does mention that there are, in fact, two dueling desal proposals: this collaboration between Cal-Am and Monterey County, and the Pajaro-Sunny Mesa project at the National Refractories site.
“You’re really looking at two districts, two different projects as we move ahead with the plan that’s best for the community and the plan the community is most comfortable with,” Calcagno says.
And although Cal-Am VP Steve Leonard assures the meeting attendees that this particular project is not a “done deal,” several anonymous note cards ask the panel this very question.
“It doesn’t feel like a done deal,” Leonard says.
Several critics and North County residents in attendance—worry about the damage this project may do to the Elkhorn Slough (and to their checkbooks), and worry that deals between the county and the water company will be reached behind closed doors.
“We’re working closely with Curtis Weeks [the head of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency],” Leonard says.
In March, county officials reached an agreement with Cal-Am to pursue a water project that will stop the over-pumping of the Carmel River and make additional water available. The plan does not include a site.
The other project is a desal plant of similar size that would be built and operated by the Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Water District, a public agency. This water project is running on a parallel timeframe to the Cal-Am one.
According to Marc Del Piero, the attorney for Pajaro-Sunny Mesa, “we have completed the work plan. One of the first meetings we had was with representatives from the Moss Landing Marine labs, expressly to engage their services to help us with the environmental analysis, and the brine discharge.”
He says the environmental review will be completed within 18 months.
And unlike the Cal-Am proposal, Pajaro-Sunny Mesa officials do have a location secured—the now defunct National Refractories site, next door to Duke Energy’s Moss Landing power plant. The Refractories site already has the intake and outfall pipes into the Bay that would be needed by a desal plant.
The Duke plant also already discharges water from its cooling system, which could dilute the hyper-salinated brine that is the effluent of a desalination plant.
At the June 15 meeting, Cal-Am and county Water Resource Agency spokespeople said that they are in negotiations with Duke Energy to locate a desal project at Duke, or at least near the plant.
Del Piero, who attended the Moss Landing town hall meeting, said in a later telephone interview that Duke General Manager Gene McCrillis told him otherwise.
“A month ago, Duke’s representative told me they weren’t going to let anyone have access to their outfall,” Del Piero says.
Pat Mullen, a Duke spokesperson, says his company is currently negotiating with Cal-Am and county officials on plans to build a “pilot plant,” at Duke Energy, a small-scale project that would produce 60,000 gallons of desalinated water a day.
“We’re talking with them about a pilot project, not a full desal,” Mullen says, “and we have not reached any agreements yet.
Mullan also expresses concern about Cal-Am’s proposal. “We have said all along, with any inquiry about a desal project that would be co-located at our plant, we will no nothing that will jeopardize our cooling water permits, whatsoever. We are in the power business, not the water business.”
On Wednesday, June 16 (past the Weekly ’s deadline), Del Piero was to meet with Duke officials to discuss energy costs relative to a desal plan at the National Refractories site.
Del Piero says Pajaro-Sunny Mesa reached an agreement to lease this property in January. “I notified Curtis Weeks and Supervisor Lou Calcagno probably two weeks before their initial agreement with Cal-Am,” he says. “They’ve not called us once.”
Del Piero, who is a former County Supervisor, co-authored the county ordinance that says all desalination plans located in Monterey County must be owned by a public entity.
“Also,” he adds, “I thought it was interesting that representatives from the county expressed preference for one project over the other.”
According to County Counsel Charles McKee, the county began working with Cal-Am after the water company’s initial proposal was submitted to the state Public Utilities Commission.
“The county was concerned that we would not have enough input,” McKee says. “We thought it would behoove us to get involved in some way. But I don’t think that precludes us from partnering with somebody else, or having another water company come in. I don’t see any legal issues with it.”
Environmental attorney Michael Stamp agrees that the county’s partnering with Cal-Am, “is not necessarily a conflict of interest.” But, he adds, “To the extent that the county is going to have to approve anything, including environmental documents, then they are skating on very thin ice. They are going to be in a position to regulate it [a desal plant]; while they are choosing what applicant they want. They are both a participant and a regulator. And they are getting pretty enthused about their first role.
“We will have to see to what extent we’ll be involved in a regulatory capacity,” McKee responds.