Local Spin: Bring on Plan B
What’s next in the ongoing desal drama?
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.
Wondering how, for the love of God, two taxpayer-funded public agencies and one savvy private water company could have so badly botched the formation of a plan to take salt out of water and pipe it to Monterey Peninsula homes and businesses? Curious as to the viability of nearly a dozen alternative plans being floated to take the place of the $400 million Regional Desalination Project currently tottering on the brink of collapse?
Anticipating the results of a conflict-of-interest investigation led by the state Fair Political Practices Commission (whose chief, Ann Ravel, has as part of her mission statement a focus on major cases involving conflicts of interest)? The FPPC sleuthing could result in fines and criminal charges aimed straight at several members of the county Board of Supervisors, directors of public agencies and one former county water board director already facing dozens of criminal charges.
Feeling water tortured yet? And are you still wondering why any of it matters?
Here’s why it matters. As of this writing, the Monterey Peninsula is at five years and counting. Five years until a December 2016 court-imposed deadline to cut back pumping from the Carmel River by 70 percent. Five years for the powers that be to get their acts together, figure out the financing, produce an environmental impact report that’s legally bulletproof, get a construction schedule together, put the project out for construction bids and get the desalination plant built.
If it doesn’t happen on time, think water rationing on the Peninsula. Think two-minute showers with a bucket in the bottom of the tub, so you can use that initial burst of cold water to keep the tomato plants alive. Think about all the hotels putting up placards in the bathrooms for the tourists: “Welcome to the Monterey Peninsula – please turn off the water while lathering up.” Forget development unless you have water credits locked in.
Last week, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled on a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Ag Land Trust against the Marina Coast Water District, the backwards cousin to the only slightly more savvy County Water Resources Agency, the two local agencies partnering with CalAm Water in the desal plan.
Ag Land Trust contended the California Public Utilities Commission was wrongly tasked with leading the environmental review required under the California Environmental Quality Act. In her decision, as the Weekly first reported last week, Villarreal directed Marina Coast to scrap the existing environmental impact report and prepare a new one.
Big deal, right? Yes, a very big one. An EIR, a bulletproof one, doesn’t come cheaply, and it doesn’t come quickly, either. If Marina Coast starts now (and they won’t – they only heard about Villarreal’s decision because Weekly reporter Sara Rubin called them, and they’re still trying to figure out their options and whether to appeal that decision), a new EIR will probably take 18 months and a few million dollars.
The money part shouldn’t be a problem. Marina Coast spends money like they’ve got it. Based on a cursory look of Marina Coast’s check registers, from January 2010 to this past August, about $2.4 million went to Marina Coast attorneys Lloyd Lowrey of the Salinas firm Noland Hamerly Etienne & Hoss, and Mark Fogelman of Friedman Dumas and Springwater LLP in San Francisco. That doesn’t include invoices past June, and I haven’t gotten to the past few months’ check registers – that should give me something to do on New Year’s Eve.
Villarreal’s decision could mean any number of different directions for the stalled project, from a reconfiguration of partner parties to a brand new EIR, which would mean a new analysis of alternatives and impacts for a regional water supply option.
There are a number of alternative projects in play. Businessman Nader Agha is talking about his People’s Moss Landing Water Desal Project; his former friend-turned-rival Brent Constantz is plotting DeepWater Desal. But the Peninsula mayors recently made a savvy move that could turn the whole thing on its head.
In a letter sent to Ron Stefani, head of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, the Monterey County Mayors Association asked the agency to begin exploring expanding a joint powers authority, through which an alternative water project could be managed. And late last month, Stefani told the mayors his board has talked it over and said yes.
And that might make the MRWPCA the smartest of the alphabet-agency bunch.
Mary Duan is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.