As the Regional Project sputters, water district eyes potential desal site at NPS.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
The Regional Desalination Project has the California Public Utilities Commission’s green light, but it’s still far from a sure thing – particularly in light of recent Coastal Commission scrutiny, questionable financing and a pending lawsuit over water rights.
While project backers cast the $400 million gig as the Peninsula’s last and best hope for a secure water supply, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District is making contingency plans. District officials say a mix of expanded aquifer storage, water reclamation, conservation and a small desal plant could do the job just as well, and possibly a lot cheaper.
“If the regional project fails for any reason, including not getting a permit, the water district has a list of options,” MPWMD board member Kristi Markey says.
Among them: a desalination plant, capable of producing several thousand acre-feet of water per year, within MPWMD’s boundaries. In mid-April, water district officials began talks with the Naval Postgraduate School and the city of Monterey about building a desal plant on the site of an abandoned sewage treatment facility on the ocean side of Del Monte Boulevard. The plant would likely use an open-ocean intake and require a permit from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The water district has also considered small desal projects in Sand City and Moss Landing.
“They’re not meant to be a competitor for the regional project,” MPWMD General Manager Darby Fuerst says. “But if there is a significant delay, these could hopefully come online in time to soften the reductions required by the [State Water Resources Control Board’s] cease-and-desist order.”
Any such water district undertaking would be subject to a vote of the people and would only have a good chance at passing, Markey says, if the regional project appears to be a no-go.
There are signs, however, that it’s already stalling.
An April 29 notice from the Coastal Commission asks RMC Water and Environment, the regional project’s contractor, to provide additional information before the coastal development permit can be considered complete. Potential impacts on the Salinas Valley Aquifer – the subject of an Ag Land Trust lawsuit challenging the project – figure prominently into the 20-item info request.
But Jim Heitzman, general manager of Marina Coast Water District, says the project is still on schedule to meet the State Water Resources Control Board’s December 2016 deadline. That’s when Cal Am must reduce the water it takes from the overdrawn Carmel River by 70 percent.
Heitzman says the project partners – Marina Coast, California American Water and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency – are unfazed by the latest hurdles.
“The litigation has to work its way through to some sort of conclusion, and that’s the American way,” he says. “I don’t think any of us thought it would be uneventful to get a Coastal Commission permit. It can be challenging, which is appropriate.”
Heitzman says the Peninsula water district and the state Division of Ratepayer Advocates, which raised objections during the CPUC proceedings last year, are to blame for the regional project’s most significant delay.
But Fuerst counters that those same unresolved issues continue to plague the project. “We raised questions about the feasibility of the intake wells, the water rights and the financing,” he says. “Now those questions are coming back.”