There’s a war over the future of water on the Monterey Peninsula and it’s taking place in the board chambers of half a dozen state and local government entities. It’s also taking place on social media and in the press.

One of the phrases that keeps popping up in both of these debates – about the future water supply and the future water utility – is deja vu. People who have lived in the area for decades recall the prior incarnations of this war, moments when the public finally thought a solution is at hand only to find that some ruling or voter initiative has changed everything.

Today, veteran water warriors are joined by younger generations and newcomers to water politics.

The investor-owned water utility serving the Monterey Peninsula for the past 53 years has a plan to solve the water shortage that has been plaguing the region since two centuries ago or earlier. California American Water wants to drill into the ground under Marina, where freshwater and seawater mix, and pump out millions of gallons of brackish water per day. That water would then be filtered and purified at a $329 million desalination plant and distributed to 40,000 households and businesses. Many object to the plan, saying it’s too expensive and that there is a better option available.

And while Cal Am’s plan is getting close to becoming a reality, the company itself might disappear from the region within a few years. That’s because an influential movement of ratepayers wants to force Cal Am to sell its water system to a local public agency. The company insists it’s not for sale and vows to fight attempts to take it over.

Throughout the years many of the questions have been the same: Should we dig for water or should we squeeze the river dry? How do we sustain a growing population? Who should own the water system – a private company or the public?

The Weekly decided to go back in time and bring this history to the forefront.

65 million years ago: The Carmel River Watershed begins to form during the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

3,300 years ago: Esselen tribal settlement in the region begins. Native people fish the river and gather plants along its shore for ceremonial and medicinal purposes. The river is believed to convey the spirits of the dead to another realm.

1603: Spanish colonialist Sebastian Vizcaíno sails to the coast of California and encounters a river while exploring the area. He names it El Río del Carmelo.

1770: Spanish missionary Junípero Serra arrives in Monterey. He describes the banks of the Carmel River as “delightful” and sees “promise of abundant harvest.” He soon orders mission slaves to dig a channel that would ensure the nearby lagoon is always supplied with water from the Carmel River.

1848: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed, ending the Mexican-American War and turning California into a U.S. territory. The population of Monterey is about 1,000.

1879: Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson visits Monterey and describes the existing water supply system: “[windmills] whirling and creaking and filling their cisterns with the brackish waters of the sands.”

1880s: Hotel Del Monte is built on the Monterey Peninsula, on the site of what is now the Naval Postgraduate School. To supply it with water, 700 Chinese workers construct the first dam on the Carmel River, which becomes known as Chinese Dam.

1897: Del Monte Golf Course, the region’s first golf course, opens.

1919: After drilling all over Pebble Beach and finding no water, developer S.F.B. Morse acquires rights to water from the only source available: the Carmel River.

1921: S.F.B. Morse, a founder of Pebble Beach, spearheads the construction of the San Clemente Dam, creating a supply of water that should allow major new development to accommodate the growing population on the Monterey Peninsula. Within a few years, locals notice that the reservoir behind the dam is filling up with mud.

1931: Water rates go up, prompting the first movement advocating for public ownership of the water system. Public water proponents estimate the water rights are worth about $2 million, or about $33 million in today’s money.

1935: A public water takeover initiative is defeated at the ballot by a vote of 2,106 to 1,041.

1940s: Monterey’s sardine canneries earn world renown for supplying the Allies with food during World War II, but these facilities are water-intensive, putting additional strain on the supply.

1949: To supply the increasing demand, the water utility, California Water and Telephone Company, builds the Los Padres Dam on the Carmel River, creating a new reservoir with a capacity of about 3,100 acre-feet.

1956: Water rates threaten to spike and Monterey Peninsula cities respond with a proposal for a public takeover of the water system. After a few years of deliberation, the proposal fails.

1966: Spending $42 million, or about $332 million in today’s dollars, New Jersey-based American Water Works Company acquires a number of water systems in California, including the one serving the Monterey Peninsula. This is when the subsidiary called California American Water is created.

1970: Cal Am announces water shortage on the Peninsula and proposes to build two more dams. (Neither dam ever gets built.)

1975: California Public Utilities Commission intervenes, ordering a moratorium on new water hookups on the Peninsula. Water rationing goes into effect.

1976: Water rationing is imposed on the Peninsula, reviving the push for public ownership of the water system.

1978: In response to the disruptive cycle of drought years and flood years, voters approve the formation of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, empowering it to work with Cal Am on protecting and increasing the region’s water supply – or to buy out Cal Am and take over the system. MPWMD begins to look for a new water source, while Cal Am drills wells in Carmel Valley.

1979: A decline in the population of steelhead trout prompts the creation of a coalition of environmentalists and government officials focused on conservation and restoration of the Carmel River and its ecology.

1987: Cal Am is accused of illegally pumping water from the Carmel River in a complaint submitted by Carmel River Steelhead Association to the State Water Resources Control Board. Cal Am says it has the rights to all the water it takes and more.

1987: By a 2-to-1 margin, voters support the development of a new San Clemente Dam project, which is proposed by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District with Cal Am support. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the plan is detrimental to conservation priorities, and, within two years, the project is dead.

1991: The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District proposes a new, larger Los Padres Dam and a desalination plant. “Desalination is sweeping California like some Messianic religion,” the Weekly writes. But two years later, voters reject the desal plant. Meanwhile, the dam project faces opposition from local residents, environmental groups, Cachagua-area vintners and Esselen tribal members.

1994: The U.S. Army closes down Fort Ord, leaving behind a base that relied on groundwater pumped from the aquifer at the coastal edge of the Salinas Valley Basin. Internal documents would later show that the Army knew for at least a decade before the base closure that its wells were causing the intrusion of seawater into groundwater supply. “Marina’s water problems are very similar,” one Army memo reads, implicating Marina Coast Water District.

1995: The State Water Resources Control Board rules against Cal Am in the case brought by the steelhead group, finding that the company pumps about three times more water from the Carmel River than it is legally entitled to. The board issues Order 95-10, requiring Cal Am to begin conservation, pursue a legal water source and ease pressure on the river by pumping more from the aquifer known as the Seaside Basin.

1995: By a margin of 57-43, voters reject a plan to fund the New Los Padres Dam project. Cal Am says it will get the financing itself and build the dam without voter support. Meanwhile, in the next two years, steelhead and the red-legged frog of the Carmel River are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

1997: State Water Resources Control Board reprimands Cal Am for failing to meet the water conservation target prescribed in Order 95-10.

2000: As public sentiment against a new Carmel River dam grows, the California Public Utilities Commission develops Plan B, a set of 15 new water supply options for the Monterey Peninsula. These include desalination plants of various sizes; drilling wells deeper into the bedrock under Carmel Valley; recharging the Seaside basin with excess Carmel River flows; begging the State Water Resources Board to grant Cal Am more Carmel River water rights; suing for rights to the Salinas and Carmel rivers under the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; purchasing imported water from the Central Valley; importing water from Humboldt County using large floating nylon sacks known as Spraggs Bags; purifying sewage and recycling it; and capturing storm runoff.

Watershed Moments

The only time the California Coastal Commission ever allowed members of the public to participate in its hearings remotely via video was during its Nov. 14, 2019 discussion of California American Water’s planned desalination project. About 60 residents signed up to speak from Marina City Hall.

2004: Cal Am proposes to replace its illegal diversion of Carmel River water with a desalination plant at Moss Landing, known as the Coastal Water Project. The price tag of the plant is about $250 million or, accounting for inflation, about $340 million in today’s dollars.

2005: Measure W, which proposes a public water utility to replace Cal Am, makes the ballot but voters reject it by a 63-37 margin, representing a win for Cal Am against the newly formed group Citizens for Public Water.

2006: After a lawsuit by Cal Am against a long list of defendants in 2003, the Seaside Basin, a critical underground water reservoir for the Monterey Peninsula, comes under the control of the Monterey County Superior Court. This is referred to as the basin’s adjudication. In order to curb the intrusion of seawater, the court requires careful management and limits to pumping, creating a public entity known as the Seaside Groundwater Basin Watermaster.

2007: The state water board allows Cal Am to inject water pumped from the Carmel River into the Seaside Basin during the rainy season, for use in the dry season.

2008: Cal Am’s parent company, American Water Works, puts itself on the stock market. The stock price starts at around $20. Within a decade the company’s stock price reaches $120, a sixfold increase. By 2019, American Water is worth more than $21 billion.

2009: Fourteen years after Order 95-10 that found Cal Am was illegally pumping water from the Carmel River, the state water board revisits the issue. Despite lobbying by Cal Am and its allies in the real estate and tourism industries, the board adopts a new order requiring an end to the overdrafting of the river by the end of 2016.

2009: Cal Am’s regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, reviews the company’s proposed Moss Landing desalination plant but also looks at two alternative desal proposals, both of which would be located near Marina. On environmental grounds, the CPUC rejects the Moss Landing proposal in favor of an alternative known as the Regional Water Project. Cal Am and some local water officials accept the decision and begin to collaborate on its development.

2010: Cal Am, Marina Coast Water District and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency come to an agreement on the Regional Water Project, which is expected to cost $400 million. The California Public Utilities Commission gives its blessing. The project moves forward over objections from some on Monterey Peninsula who decry the cost and say that Peninsula ratepayers have been excluded from the decision-making table.

2010: “After decades of hand-wringing over the Peninsula’s water supply, we’re finally close to a solution,” the Weekly predicts, wrongly, in a cover story devoted to the Regional Water Project. “A very expensive solution, with democracy and financing leaks, but at least it’s a drought-proof water source designed to end Cal Am’s decades of river and basin over drafting.”

2011: Steve Collins, the chair of the board of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, recuses himself from voting on a $28 million contract with the firm RMC Engineering. Collins is later found to have earned income as a consultant to RMC Engineering – a contractor on the Regional Water Project, while also serving on MCWRA, a government agency that is a partner on the project. Cal Am knew about Collins’ consulting contract for nearly a year but decided not to say anything, the company tells the Division of Ratepayer Advocates (since renamed) at the California Public Utilities Commission. Collins later pleads no contest to a felony conflict of interest and in 2014 was sentenced to three years of probation and nine months in jail, which he completed by doing community service hours.

2011: The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District explores the possibility of building a smaller desalination plant near the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

2011-2017: California is in a drought, putting a strain on water supplies across the state and prompting more pumping of water from the deep aquifer.

Jan. 2012: Following the Steve Collins scandal and other challenges, Cal Am scraps the Regional Water Project, but vows to continue pursuing desalination as the solution to the Peninsula’s water supply problem.

April 2012: Cal Am presents its new plan for desalination, filing a proposal with the CPUC for the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. It includes a plant near Marina and a new pumping technology known as sub-surface slant wells. The project also includes pumping of excess river water during wet times into the Seaside Basin for future use, as well as a plant to treat wastewater and recycle it into the drinking supply. (The Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project is the same project the company is pursuing today.)

Jan. 2013: Cal Am notifies state authorities it will be unable to end the overdrafting of the Carmel River by the state-ordered deadline of December 2016. The company says it’s going to be late because of the delays caused by the failure of the previous desal project.

June 2014: by a 55-45 margin, voters reject Measure O, which would have directed the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to explore the possibility of buying out the water system. Cal Am spent nearly $2.5 million on the campaign against the measure, while public buyout proponents spent about $100,000.

Sept. 2014: In the midst of a historic drought and the depletion of the state’s aquifers, California lawmakers pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Under the new law, the Salinas Valley Basin, which includes aquifers under Marina, is deemed “critically overdrafted” and under dire threat of seawater intrusion. There must be a plan in place by January 2020 to protect the basin through infrastructure investments or by reducing pumping.

Jan. 2015: Water bills on the Monterey Peninsula are the ninth highest in the nation, according to a report released by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

Nov. 2015: The largest dam removal project in California history is completed with the demolition of the 10-story-high San Clemente Dam. It had been blocking the Carmel River since 1921 and the reservoir it created had long been filled with sediment. The removal cost $84 million, and is paid for by Cal Am customers on the Monterey Peninsula and by grant money. Within four years, fish populations begin rebounding and riverbank vegetation grows anew.

July 2016: With a deadline looming to sharply limit pumping from the Carmel River by the end of 2016, the State Water Resource Control Board grants an extension. It allows Cal Am time to develop an alternative water supply by the end of 2021.

July 2017: The government entity handling sewage changes its name from Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency to Monterey One Water, reflecting a more modern understanding of wastewater as a resource that can be treated and recycled back into the drinking water supply. The agency is in the process of developing Pure Water Monterey, a water recycling plant designed to supply Cal Am and to reduce the region’s reliance on the Carmel River. Pure Water Monterey is one of three prongs that make up Cal Am’s Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. The other two are the replenishment of the Seaside Basin with excess flow from the river during wet times and a north Marina desalination plant.

Sept. 2018: The California Public Utilities Commission approves Cal Am’s plan to build a desalination plant in north Marina. The plant would be supplied by slant wells drawing brackish water from under a beach in Marina. That beach has long hosted industrial activity, serving as the site a Cemex sand mine that will soon be shuttered. The CPUC decision is made over the objections of Marina and Marina Coast Water District officials who say that the wells would likely make the seawater intrusion into their freshwater basin worse. A competing water supply proposal to build an expanded water recycling facility does not gain the confidence of CPUC officials.

Nov. 2018: With the support of 56 percent of voters, Measure J passes, directing the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to acquire control of the Cal Am-owned water system “if and when feasible.” Cal Am sees defeat despite its campaign spending $2.7 million to sway public opinion against public ownership, while the other side, organized under the banner of Public Water Now spent only $214,000. The architect of Measure J, George Riley, resigns as the director of Public Water Now after being elected to the board of MPWMD.

Watershed Moments

The reservoir created by the Los Padres Dam in 1949 was designed to hold about 3,100 acre-feet of water. But the reservoir has gotten so silted up over the years that it is at about half its original capacity.

Feb. 14, 2019: The Marina Planning Commission rejects Cal Am’s application for a development permit to build coastal pumps to supply the company’s proposed desalination plant. The rejection paves the way for Cal Am to appeal to the California Coastal Commission, which has the authority to overrule local jurisdictions and grant development permits in the state’s Coastal Zone.

July 15, 2019: Cal Am secures a development permit from the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to build its desalination plant on unincorporated land right outside Marina city limits. The three supervisors representing Salinas Valley/inland districts vote for the permit while the two supervisors whose districts overlap with the Cal Am service area vote against.

Sept. 16, 2019: Water use on the Monterey Peninsula has dropped so sharply due to conservation efforts that it can be met even without desalination, says a report presented by Dave Stoldt, the general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. “The Stoldt Report,” as it becomes known, says that an expansion of recycled water project Pure Water Monterey would provide enough water for decades of growth. Cal Am supports Pure Water Monterey but rejects Stoldt’s conclusion that expanding it would create a sufficient and reliable water supply. Desalination is the only solution, the company says.

Oct. 4, 2019: Water officials and elected leaders gather for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Pure Water Monterey. The $126 million wastewater recycling plant is weeks away from pumping purified water into the Seaside Basin underground reservoir. Water recycling is one of three new supplies that Cal Am says will allow it to reduce its pumping from the Carmel River. The other two are desalination and capturing excessive river flows during wet periods.

Oct. 28, 2019: The staff of the California Coastal Commission recommends that commissioners deny Cal Am’s request for a permit for coastal slant wells in Marina that would supply the company’s proposed desalination plant. Commission staff cite the relatively high cost to ratepayers of the desal project, possible environmental harm, and the decrease in water demand on the Peninsula, and the availability of an alternative water project: an expansion of Pure Water Monterey, the wastewater recycling project.

Nov. 6, 2019: To the dismay of Cal Am, an analysis by a team of consultants and bankers says that public ownership of the local water system would be feasible, the first major milestone since voters passed the public water initiative Measure J a year earlier. The cost of acquiring Cal Am’s local water system is pegged at $513 million, a figure that assumes Cal Am’s desalination plant gets built and is part of the deal. The analysis finds that water rates could likely be lowered if the system were run by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, rather than Cal Am.

Nov. 14, 2019: The California Coastal Commission meets in Half Moon Bay to discuss Cal Am’s proposed slant wells in Marina. A vote on the permit is postponed to the commission’s March 2020 meeting, but hundreds of people still arrive to weigh in. The hearing lasts more than seven hours.

Nov. 19, 2019: A Monterey County Superior Court judge issues a freeze on construction of Cal Am’s desalination plant until after the Coastal Commission votes on the project’s beachfront wells in March 2020. The decision is the result of a lawsuit brought by Marina Coast Water District and pushes back Cal Am’s construction schedule.

March 2020: The California Coastal Commission meets in Scotts Valley and is scheduled to vote on Cal Am’s request for a development permit for wells that would supply its planned desalination plant.

Dec. 31, 2021: The cease and desist deadline by which Cal Am must end the illegal pumping of the Carmel River and switch to an alternative water supply, per the decision by the State Water Resources Control Board.

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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