Being a skeptic of California American Water’s proposed desalination plant isn’t a bad way to make a living.
The California Public Utilities Commission allows groups representing water customers – “intervenors” – to recover the money they need to participate in the proceedings for Cal Am’s proposed Water Supply Project. Ideally, that means the PUC hears diverse perspectives and makes better-informed decisions. But those costs, if approved, ultimately fall on Cal Am’s ratepayers.
Nine groups have filed their intents to claim intervenor compensation: Water Plus ($334,000), Coalition of Peninsula Businesses ($290,000), LandWatch Monterey County ($186,000), Planning and Conservation League Foundation ($170,625), Surfrider Foundation ($169,035), Salinas Valley Water Coalition ($119,850), Public Trust Alliance ($100,300), Citizens for Public Water ($40,970) and Sierra Club ($37,500).
Most of the notices state that no member of the intervening groups has direct economic interests in the proceedings’ outcomes.
But at least one member of Water Plus has an indirect interest. George Schroeder, the group’s secretary-treasurer, is also a partner in The People’s Moss Landing Water Desalination Project, which is competing with Cal Am’s project and a third contender, DeepWater Desal, to supply the region’s de-salted water.
Schroeder says he wouldn’t cash in on compensation granted to Water Plus, and that his dual roles don’t constitute a conflict of interest. But Water Plus does back his People’s Project.
“Water Plus has picked the project that most meets its objective,” he says. “[The People’s Project] is the only one with a public agency handling it.”
In July, the city of Pacific Grove struck a preliminary deal positioning itself as the potential lead agency for the People’s Project. That makes it the only proposal in compliance with a 1989 county ordinance requiring public ownership of desal plants.
But that ordinance might soon go poof, taking the People’s Project’s moral high ground with it.
Cal Am’s proposal includes a desal plant wholly owned by the private utility. In June, attorneys for Monterey County asked the Superior Court in San Francisco County to decide whether Cal Am can ignore the ordinance.
The PUC’s judge considered the same question. Water Plus was among the intervenors that weighed in, arguing Cal Am doesn’t meet the burden of proof to trump the county law.
On Sept. 21, Administrative Law Judge Gary Weatherford concluded the PUC pre-empts the county desal ordinance. He also found the PUC has greater authority than the Superior Court to make that call. The commission is expected to consider Weatherford’s proposed decision this fall.
According to a documents filed with the PUC, county attorneys met with advisers to three commissioners on Oct. 1, when the county reps essentially considered the desal ordinance dead.
County attorneys Dan Carroll and Charles McKee talked about dropping the Superior Court lawsuit in light of Weatherford’s ruling. “[T]he county would like to pursue a favorable disposition of existing litigation… that would not result in the ordinance being a detriment to the desalination project proposed by [Cal Am],” states one notice of ex parte communication.
McKee says it’s only practical for the county to assess its options at this point. “We’re looking to try and reinforce as much local control over the public health and safety issues with desal as we can,” he says.