Desal Visions Multiply, Cal Am Buys a Bite of Dole and Other Random Water News
December 13, 2012
It's been a busy week of newsbites in the neverending, always nerdy quest for a new Monterey Peninsula water supply. The highlights, in no particular order:
1. Desalination plant siting = North County musical chairs.
Cal Am closed a deal last week on the desired home for its proposed desal plant. For $657,500, Cal Am bought 46 acres off Charles Benson Road in North Marina from Dole Food Company. The property, adjacent to Dole's large cooler off Del Monte Boulevard, hasn't been used for farming—or for much of anything.
"We never really did anything with the land," Dole spokesman Marty Ordman says. "We’ve owned it for quite some time and we weren’t using it, so it just made sense to sell it." Maps in Cal Am's Water Supply Project proposal show several possible contingency sites.
Those locations include properties owned by Dynegy, the parent company of the Moss Landing power plant; developer Nader Agha's Moss Landing Commercial Park, the site of Agha's own proposed desal plant; and Capurro Properties, LLC, which is owned by John Manafre and is the site of a third competing desal vision, DeepWater Desal.
You read that right: Cal Am is counting on the sites of two competing desal plants as contingency locations for its own desal plant.
For now, Cal Am is making no moves toward acquiring any of those back-up properties, spokeswoman Catherine Bowie explains by email: "Our current proposal is going strong. No negotiations for alternate sites are underway and none are foreseen."
2. Desal proposals are breeding like bunnies.
Why stop at three proposed desalination projects? These days, it seems every Monterey County agency wants one for Christmas. In addition to the Water Supply Project, People's Project and DeepWater Desal, officials have recently floated the notion of three additional smaller plants.
Monterey Peninsula Water Management District has long considered building its own desalination plant, including a smallish plant on a beach parcel owned by the Naval Postgraduate School (pictured above), especially if Cal Am's regional desal ambitions fall through. A recent district report suggests a challenge from Salinas Valley farmers over water rights could derail the Water Supply Project.
With litigation closing in on Cal Am at every turn, the Water Management District's getting serious. On Dec. 10, the district board considered spending up to $1 million over the next two years to look into a desal plant that wouldn't risk drawing groundwater from the touchy Salinas Basin—perhaps by partnering with the two Moss Landing desal proposals, the People's Project or DeepWater Desal.
Peninsula water watchdogs who can't stand Cal Am are excited by the idea. Citizens for Public Water/Ratepayers First has launched an online petition (only 242 signatures so far) supporting a Water Management District-owned desal plant.
Not one to be left out of an expensive party, Marina Coast Water District's looking to build its own desal plant, too. The district has put out a request for proposals for a 1,500-2,700 acre-foot facility to supply new development on the former Fort Ord.
Nevermind that the district already has one. Marina Coast built the county's first desal facility, a relatively small 300-acre-footer next to the district offices, in the 1990s for about $7 million. But after running for just a couple of years, the district shut it down because it cost to much to power and, in the words of district General Manager Jim Heitzman, "there was no particular need for that water."
It's still permitted and able to operate, but instead it's padlocked and rusting while the district considers building a new one. “It might be easier or more cost-effective to locate the plant elsewhere,” Heitzman says.
Even Salinas wants a piece of the desal pie. At the Dec. 11 City Council meeting, the council considered a proposed 50-percent rate hike for the city's California Water Service Company customers—not to be confused with California American Water, the private utility that serves the Peninsula. Mike Jones, the Salinas District manager for Cal Water, threw the notion of a Salinas desal plant out there. Because desal is just so hot right now.
3. Trend: Buttering up the California Public Utilities Commission.
Also hot: getting face time with the Public Utilities Commission. Not many weeks go by without at least one ex parte commuication, the fancy term for whining to a PUC official outside of a publicly noticed meeting.
In just the past five months we've seen desal-related ex partes from county attorneys, Marina Coast Water District, Cal Am, DeepWater Desal and Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett. The latest two were filed just before Thanksgiving by the city of Pacific Grove and Nader Agha himself.
On Nov. 6, Agha wrote to PUC Administrative Law Judge Gary Weatherford—who is overseeing the proceedings for Water Supply Project—and glommed onto the Cal Am contingency plan to put its desal plant in Agha's Moss Landing Commercial Park.
Agha likes this idea, and asks Weatherford to instruct Cal Am "to sit down and negotiate with us the ownership and operation of this new water supply."
Two weeks later, three Pacific Grove officials including City Manager Tom Frutchey met with the advisors to four Public Utilities Commissioners in San Francisco. Despite P.G.'s loose backing of the People's Project, the meetings weren't to push Agha's proposal (of which Frutchey is not a fan).
Instead, they pitched three reclaimed water projects—which would recycle a mix of wastewater and runoff for irrigation and other non-potable uses—as a way to reduce the amount of desalination water needed. Each project could produce 100-500 acre-feet of water per year, Frutchey said, which could offset potable water consumption and allow a smaller desal plant to be built.
4. Post-election changes to the Peninsula mayors' board look good for Cal Am.
On Nov. 6, voters booted incumbent mayors Felix Bachofner of Seaside and Carmelita Garcia of Pacific Grove. That creates ripple effects on the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority, a joint powers authority formed by the Peninsula cities (minus Sand City).
Among the six mayors comprising the Regional Water Authority board, Bachofner and Garcia have been the most critical of Cal Am's Water Supply Project. Both have encouraged the authority to explore alternative regional desalination options, namely the People's Project—Agha's proposal, which is tentatively backed by the city of Pacific Grove—and DeepWater Desal.
A consultant hired by the Regional Water Authority recently compared the three proposals, and found that the water produced by the People's Project and DeepWater Desal would cost just a little less, but Cal Am's Water Supply Project would come online first. Timing is everything for a Peninsula facing a state-mandated, 70-percent water cutback within four years if a new water supply isn't flowing by then.
It's not clear yet what role, if any, the Regional Water Authority will play in the next big desalination plant. But the exclusion of elected Peninsula officials may have played into the failure of the last major desal proposal, and the authority seems determined to grow some teeth this time around.
Cal Am can probably take the election as a good sign. New P.G. Mayor Bill Kampe voted against the city's partnership with Agha on the People's Project, and has spoken about his desire for a more united regional approach. And repeat Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio has historically been less contrarian on water issues than Bachofner. The next few Regional Water Authority meetings should be telling.
Did you get all that?
If so, you get our official Water Nerd Badge, which Weekly reporters wear with pride. If not, you can always study up at www.mcweekly.com/desal.
Now go enjoy a nice, long bath.
Sara Rubin contributed to this report, with additional reporting by Mary Duan.