The Regional Desal Project for Dummies
If you don’t follow the Peninsula’s wonky water saga, think of it as our own ridiculous reality show.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
The devoted fans who followed Arrested Development through its three twisting seasons know why it won six Emmy Awards. But drop-in viewers had a hard time decoding its tangled subplots and nuanced dialogue – a factor some critics blame for the series’ short run.
The Regional Desalination Project has gotten just as convoluted, and it might be just as doomed. But if you live in California American Water’s Monterey service district, this story is costing you more than your Netflix bill, so you might as well tune in.
(Disclaimer: This script is based on a true story, and the quotes are real, but it takes a Hollywood dose of creative license. For the hard-news version, see our accompanying timeline.)
The premise: Monterey County’s water-related agencies make up one big dysfunctional family, the Waterstons. The brawny older kid, Monterey County Water Resources Agency (we’ll call him County), has the off-putting habit of drinking straight out of kitchen faucet. The middle one, runny-nosed Marina Coast Water District (Marino), has been aping his big brother’s swagger since hitting puberty last year.
The Waterston boys have become expert at manipulating their nerve-wracked dad, the County Board of Supervisors (Supe). Some might say he encourages their bad behavior; or maybe he’s just gotten in the habit of looking the other way.
The boys barely acknowledge their youngest sister, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (Penny). Excluded by her siblings and socially awkward at school, Penny has developed a rather pathetic dependency on Cal Am (Uncle Cal): He steals water from the Carmel River and pipes it to her; she spreads it around the neighborhood to stay popular.
In recent episodes, the boys’ club has broken up. Marino won’t talk to County, County’s threatening to disown Marino, and Cal – who’d grown strangely close with his nephews in recent seasons – is fed up with them both for being so clueless about money. After a particularly nasty exchange of insults, they’re headed to family therapy.
The squabbling has pushed the kids’ fed-up mother, the state Water Resources Control Board (Statia), to the edge of her patience. Pretty soon, she just might make good on her 16-year-old threat to cut back 70 percent of the river water Cal siphons off for Penny – a prospect that makes every last one of the neighborhood kids tremble.
Let’s recap the plot twists that got us here.
Season 1: Squirt guns.
The pilot episode opens with a flashback of Statia, in her 1995 Jen Aniston harido, giving heavy-drinking Cal an ultimatum: Stop guzzling the Carmel River, or I’ll cut you off. The three Waterston tots watch the argument, wide-eyed. What will happen to Penny, they wonder, if Uncle Cal stops supplying her with the good stuff?
Fast-forward to October 2009. The Waterston kids are now teenagers, and Cal’s cut down his drinking by about 20 percent. But that doesn’t impress Statia: She throws down her napkin during a tense family dinner and warns Cal that if he doesn’t wean himself off the Carmel sauce within seven years, he’ll have to go cold turkey in rehab.
The Waterston kids shudder at the thought. Without the steady flow from Cal, Penny won’t have nearly as many out-of-town visitors. And Supe probably won’t get his golf condos on the former Fort Ord. Cal and Penny appeal Statia’s edict, but we won’t know how that shakes out for several more seasons.
Luckily, the local kids have planned for the worst. Through backyard meetings over the years, they’ve reached consensus on a blueprint for the Regional Water Supply Project, also known as the Regional Desalination Project. A giant seawater desalination facility is an expensive solution, they realize, but it’ll keep Statia from flying off the handle over the river problem, it’ll be immune to drought, and it can expand if necessary to let the neighborhood grow.
With that groundwork laid, Cal, County and Marino (along with some carefully selected friends) hole up in Cal’s cabin to work out the specs. In March 2010 they unveil their masterpiece, the Regional Project water purchase and settlement agreements, like they’re the best thing to happen to the hood since fried calamari.
Their proposal goes like this: Intake wells run by County draw brackish water from the coast just north of Marina. The water is piped inland to a desalination plant owned by Marino, which removes the salt to produce about 10 million gallons of potable water a day. The waste brine is pumped back to the beach through existing pipes, diluted and dumped into the sea.
The resulting de-salted water flows to Penny via a 10-mile transmission pipeline, allowing Cal to lay off the Carmel River. But at up to $6,000 per acre-foot, the water wouldn’t come to Penny cheap. And she wouldn’t get all of it.
Thanks to Supe’s house rule, “Salinas Valley Basin water stays in the Salinas Valley Basin,” Marino would keep a stream of de-salted water proportional to the percent of freshwater in the intake wells. He’d only have to pay about $150 per acre-foot for it, setting up a dirt-cheap water supply for his future developments on the former Fort Ord.
“We have a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy,” jokes Marino’s hippie pal, Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado, about the blatantly sweet deal for his posse. “The costs weren’t ours because of the way the agreements were drawn up, so we didn’t have an objection.”
Things look good for Cal and the boys during last December’s Season 1 finale, when the California Public Utilities Commission approves the Regional Project agreements.
It doesn’t play out so smoothly.
Season 2: Salt happens.
When we return to the Waterston family in spring 2011, the neighborhood is starting to turn on Cal and the boys.
Statia’s book-club friend, the state Division of Ratepayer Advocates, won’t shut up about the unfair cost structure of the Regional Project agreements. Why should Penny cover nearly the entire tab, she keeps asking, yet have no say in how Cal and the boys run the project?
DRA’s protests rub off on Penny. Before long she’s whining about being left out of the boys’ club; then she gets downright mad. The Peninsula mayors – classmates who have gotten hooked on Cal’s water – take her side, and the discontent grows. The Ag Land Trust files suit, arguing it’s both dumb and illegal to use already overdrafted Salinas Valley groundwater for desal.
LandWatch board member Julie Engell (who’s been watching the drama unfold from her front stoop) notes that a separate big water deal, the Salinas Valley Water Project, is meant to reduce pumping along the coast. The Regional Water Project, however, seems designed to do the opposite.
“No one has ever explained why one project is supposed to halt seawater intrusion by pumping less at the coast, and another project is supposed to halt seawater intrusion by pumping more at the coast,” she says. “It’s a water rights issue. You’ve got an overdrafted basin, which means there are no more water rights to be expended.”
Even some of the farmers on County’s baseball team are souring on the Regional Project. Seems they’re worried Cal’s going to start dipping into their stash.
“From the beginning, we were promised that there would be no exportation of groundwater and that the water rights would come from Marina Coast,” says Nancy Isakson, president of the Salinas Valley Water Coalition, which initially supported the project agreements. “That really hasn’t been put in black and white anywhere.”
Then last January, in a major blow to Cal’s sex appeal, California’s biggest investment bank blabs that the proposed Regional Project is probably too risky to fund at a workable interest rate. In other words, the grown-ups they were counting on to lend them money think the project’s a joke.
Taken together, the snags – the cost concerns, the governance and transparency protests, the water rights challenge, the financing question – are enough to earn Cal and the boys a formidable crowd of skeptics.
“The Regional Project really isn’t regional. It’s two agencies getting together to provide water outside their district,” Engell says, rocking on her porch swing and sipping on a Tom Collins. “Frankly, as a Monterey Peninsula resident, I don’t want either the Marina Coast Water District or the Monterey County Water Resources Agency involved. I don’t want those yahoos muckin’ around in my water.”
Season 3: Pee in the pool.
In this shocking season premiere, a curveball from County’s trustiest sidekick ends up wiping the muddiest smear yet on the Regional Project’s reputation.
Water Resources Agency Board Director Steve Collins, a pushy kid from the debate club, has been thick with County for more than a decade. So no one thought to question why he palled around with the Waterston boys, Cal, Supe and their lawyer buddies so often in 2010. (A time-lapse montage shows the clique toasting up the Regional Project at restaurants all over town.)
Then, during an otherwise slow episode in March 2011, Collins casually recuses himself from a board vote awarding the $28 million Regional Project management contract to RMC Engineering.
A mention of the recusal in the neighborhood’s coolest newspaper piques the curiosity of North County land use activist Ed Mitchell, a maverick cowboy who’s trying to get in with Daddy Supe. (He’s challenging Supervisor Lou Calcagno for the District 2 seat again next year.) With a little snooping, Mitchell discovers Collins has accepted roughly $160,000 in consulting fees from RMC while stumping for the project on County’s behalf. That’s potentially the sort of cheating that could get a kid suspended from school.
Mitchell flags what looks like a violation of state code. The state Fair Political Practices Commission takes up the case, and the county District Attorney’s Office teams up on the investigation. Mitchell hopes they cast their net wide enough to implicate certain supervisors – namely, Calcagno and Dave Potter. “They knew, or they should have known, that a conflict of interest was there,” he says.
With so much dung flying, County moves to distance himself from his BFF; Collins resigns from the water board. Supe, suddenly all business, hires an outside investigator who confirms Collins’ apparent double-dipping and blames little Marino (specifically, Marina Coast General Manager Jim Heitzman) for setting up the allegedly crooked deal.
Marino produces a counterpoint report that lobs the blame back at County and Supe. According to this version, Collins only took the RMC gig because Calcagno, Potter and Water Resources Agency boss Curtis Weeks asked him to, and county lawyers assured him it was legit.
Potter and Calcagno defend themselves in the local press, saying that while they did ask Collins to push for the Regional Project, they never knew about his side deal with RMC. Calcagno calls for Weeks’ resignation, Supe designates Potter as his desal watchdog – reverse psychology, maybe – and Marino considers spending six figures on PR for damage control.
It’s around this point the series’ ratings start to slide. The plot is more entertaining than ever, with the sort of catty exchanges that made The Hills a sleeper hit. But the occasional viewers who haven’t been watching the show religiously just can’t follow.
Still, the shenanigans escalate. The water-addicted Peninsula mayors, desperate for attention, pinky-swear to not say a word about the Regional Project all summer. (Everyone knows that’s the best way to get noticed.) In a moment of comedic relief, the nerds of The Open Monterey Project find out about their secret pact and gleefully tell the whole neighborhood.
In one recent episode, County tells Marino the Regional Project agreements are void. Marino covers his ears and insists they’re still valid. The brothers try a few times to talk it out like gentlemen, but only end up in scuffling on the front lawn.
Just as the series seems poised to jump the shark – the infighting has gotten ridiculous to the point of incredulity – the state Coastal Commission delivers a sobering shock to Cal and the boys: They’re not allowed to dig a test slant well until they sort out the messes with Collins and Ag Land Trust. Cal snaps at the boys, telling them they’ve missed their deadline to come up with partial financing for the project.
Poor little Penny, all the while, is starting to get the shakes. If she doesn’t have a new water supply in place within five years… the whole neighborhood is going to feel it. And if the Regional Project isn’t going to provide that new water, she’d better come up with a new plan. Fast.
Season 4: Boiling over.
Critics are buzzing about the show’s next season, but the trailer only offers a tease.
In one clip, Supes’ country-club buddies – a coalition formed by the Monterey County Hospitality Association – hold a meeting on how to keep the Regional Project on track despite the meltdown between Cal, County and Marino. But even they don’t know how to proceed in light of the trio’s dysfunction.
“It’s a little mystifying to me what should happen,” coalition consultant Bob McKenzie says. “If the county decides to pull out, what the heck do the other two do?”
A different alliance could conceivably forge new agreements for a reconfigured Regional Project. But it would be hard to meet Statia’s deadline of Dec. 31, 2016, when the neighborhood loses 70 percent of Penny’s Carmel sauce.
“Basically you start from scratch,” McKenzie says. “That could be quite messy, and it could take two to three years. By that point we’re almost at 2016 – not a pretty picture.”
Cal’s smokin’-hot lady friend, company spokeswoman Catherine Bowie, evokes similar End-of-Days fears. “When we get to 2016 and the cease-and-desist order is in effect, without a replacement water supply, the total water available to the Monterey Peninsula will be about half of what we are using now,” she says. “Our focus now is on trying to move the Regional Water Project forward.”
But Penny is plotting. If the Regional Project falls apart for any number of reasons – the financing doubts, the water rights challenge, the Collins conflict – she’s ready to step in with a contingency plan. A mix of expanded aquifer storage, wastewater recycling, conservation and a smaller desal plant could make up for the reduced diversions from the Carmel River, and possibly a lot cheaper.
“We will always have time to solve a problem if it’s not yet solved,” says Penny’s guidance counselor, Peninsula water district attorney David Laredo. “Can we solve it by the existing deadline set up by the state water board? It will be difficult to do so.”
Then there are the wild cards, like Moss Landing Water, a venture outfit up Highway 1 that claims it can produce all the desal water Penny needs by pulling deep water from the Monterey Submarine Canyon, for a fraction of the Regional Project’s cost.
Meanwhile a new grassroots group, WaterPlus, is reviving old calls for a public water agency to buy out Uncle Cal.
WaterPlus President Ron Weitzman’s ideal solution: a joint powers agreement allowing affected Peninsula cities to form their own water district, take over Cal Am and build a desalination project that produces enough water for urban growth at a reasonable price.
“This is not just a water supply problem,” he says. “Equally threatening to us is the cost of water.”
Another option: Uncle Cal could fly solo with a desal project, according to George Riley of Citizens for Public Water (which, after flip-flopping twice on the Regional Project agreements, now opposes them). Or Penny could make a deal with the Monterey Peninsula Water Pollution Control Agency and seek voter approval for a smaller, local desal project.
“Those plans could and should go forward because it’s lower cost, it’s under local control and the science has been done,” Riley says. “There’s a lot of work still to be done, but these pieces could provide a foundation.”
County Planning Commissioner Keith Vandevere, whose flower-power family lives in yurt behind the Waterstons, agrees that shifting the project into Penny’s hands is the most democratic solution – but it wouldn’t happen without a fight. “There’s been a huge effort, ongoing for years and years, to discredit the Water Management District,” he says. “But they are the agency answerable to Cal Am ratepayers.”
In short, he’s looking forward to the next episode.
“It’s kind of entertaining, the amount of craziness,” he says. “I guess I still have some capacity to be amazed.”
The Peninsula water district hosts a workshop on Regional Project alternatives Thursday, Aug. 25. 7pm, Monterey Hyatt Regency, 1 Old Golf Course Road, Monterey. LandWatch sponsors a talk, “Monterey County Water Basics: The Carmel River and Salinas River Watersheds,” Monday, Aug. 29, 5:30-7:30pm, Monterey Hyatt Regency. Pick up the Weekly for the latest desal news, or swim through the archives at www.mcweekly.com/desal.