Residents of the Monterey Peninsula, rest assured: No matter what happens with California American Water’s proposed desalination plant in Marina, there will be water.
“The sky’s not going to fall,” says Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.
That was the key takeaway from hearings the California Public Utilities Commission held in October and November with respect to Cal Am’s proposed project, which has faced vehement opposition from the Marina Coast Water District and the city of Marina over perceived impacts to the region’s groundwater supply.
Whether or not Cal Am’s proposed desal project – which would draw brackish water through slant wells under the beach – would have a negative impact on Marina’s groundwater remains a hotly contested question. It’s a question likely to lead to litigation.
An environmental impact report on the project is expected to come before the CPUC sometime next spring or early summer. Critics of the project, including Marina Coast Water District, have clearly documented their opposition to the project. If the CPUC approves the EIR, Marina Coast, and the city of Marina, may sue the CPUC.
Litigation could delay the project for years, which is potentially a problem for the Monterey Peninsula because another state agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, issued a cease-and-desist order to Cal Am in 2009 to halt its illegal pumping of the Carmel River, which it has carried on for decades in excess of its annual 3,376 acre-feet of water rights. (Cal Am has historically pumped an average of nearly 11,000 acre-feet per year).
The cease-and-desist order has been hanging over the Monterey Peninsula since the state water board issued it in 2009, though it has since been amended and extended. The order requires Cal Am to hit a series of milestones through 2021 to deliver another water supply.
If the desal project is delayed, there is a backup plan local officials have presented to the CPUC: An expansion of Pure Water Monterey, a recycled water project spearheaded by Monterey One Water and MPWMD.
Cal Am is now building a pipeline for the Pure Water project, which is expected to deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water to the Peninsula by mid-2019, an amount that Monterey One Water General Manager Paul Sciuto told the CPUC this fall can be expanded by another 2,250 acre-feet annually.
That potential expansion is a game-changer, and would boost the Peninsula’s annual water supply – which also includes limited water from the Seaside Basin and Sand City’s small desal plant – to just under 10,000 acre-feet, which would be enough to comply with the state’s cease-and-desist order before the deadline arrives.
In order for that expansion to happen, however, the CPUC would have to vote to authorize a 30-year water purchasing agreement – Cal Am would buy the water – for Monterey One Water to move forward.
If that were to occur, there would no longer be an urgent need for the water Cal Am hopes to produce with its desal project, as the terms of the CDO could be met without it.
In any case, Sciuto stresses his agency is not trying to hinder Cal Am’s project, but is just responding to the CPUC’s request as to whether Pure Water can be expanded to the point that it would meet the requirements of the cease-and-desist order, which would negate the need for desal in the short term.
Additionally, Marina Coast has offered to sell some of its water to the Seaside Basin – which Cal Am is party to – for the next six years, which would provide an added boost to the Peninsula’s water supply in the interim.
“We have a schedule to meet,” Sciuto says. “You have to ride the horse that’s going to get you there.”