BREAKING...Holiday Tidings from Judge to Marina Coast: The Basis for the Desal Plant is Bogus
December 21, 2011
The environmental documents that form the basis for the Regional Water Project's desalination plant are invalid, according to an intended decision filed Monday in Monterey County Superior Court.
Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled in favor of the Ag Land Trust, two years after the agricultural land conservation group filed suit. The decision focused on which agency of the triumvirate involved—the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, California American Water, or Marina Coast Water District—or the California Public Utilities Commission was responsible for taking the lead on environmental review required under the California Environmental Quality Act.
The environmental impact report (EIR) that established the now-faltering desal project as the Peninsula's water supply solution was prepared by the CPUC. Ag Land Trust argued, and the court agreed, that CPUC has been inappropriately charged with this task. In her decision, Villarreal directs Marina Coast to scrap this existing EIR and prepare a new one.
That 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.
Michael Stamp, the Monterey-based attorney representing Ag Land Trust, maintains it's never been the group's goal to eliminate the project, but simply to ensure that the process adheres to the law. "We thought it had major flaws from the beginning. There was a rush to a conclusion, a rush to get the project approved. I think there are significant violations," Stamp says.
Ag Land Trust board member Marc Del Piero praised the court's decision. "The decision is exactly what the law is, in spite of the efforts to circumvent the requirements of CEQA by public agencies," he says. "[This ruling] means that if there’s go to be a desal project in Monterey County, it has to be evaluated in a transparent fashion and backroom deals are over."
Villarreal's decision focuses on who the appropriate lead agency is, rather than getting into the substance of the EIR and Ag Land Trust's allegations that the review didn't adequately consider water rights, the environmental impacts of desalination and mitigation measures, or alternative water supply proposals.
The decision was filed just a day before the county Board of Supervisors held a special closed session meeting with MCWRA's board of directors to discuss the desal project and ongoing CPUC-sponsored mediation surrounding conflict-of-interest allegations and criminal charges against former MCWRA director Steve Collins. County Counsel Charles McKee did not return calls for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Attorneys for Marina Coast had not yet reviewed the Dec. 19 filing as of Wednesday, and so declined to comment. Representatives of the CPUC, Cal Am and Marina Coast General Manager Jim Heitzman (pictured above) did not respond to calls for comment Wednesday.
In a footnote in her decision, Villarreal dismisses Marina Coast's arguments on "the importance and dire need of procuring a reliable water source for the Monterey Peninsula" as beyond the scope of the court's authority in this case.
A final judgement is expected in January. There's no word yet as to whether Marina Coast will appeal, which would further delay the project.
"It’s not the court that set [the project partners] back on the clock, it’s their own actions that set them back," Stamp says.
"The ratepayers for CalAm and Marina Coast Water District have paid unbelievable amounts of money based on the attorneys for Cal Am’s efforts to circumvent the law," Del Piero adds. "I think the ratepayers...now understand they’ve been paying millions of dollars and they’ve been getting no benefit."
For more on the desal story and the history of this lawsuit, visit www.mcweekly.com/desal.>