Public Hearing on Cal Am Water Project Gets Feisty
January 9, 2013
The fire marshall had to regulate the heat over water at the Monterey City Council Chambers this afternoon, where a California Public Utilities Commission hearing brought more people than could fit comfortably into the chamber's church-like pews.
They were all there to comment on California American Water's application to build and operate the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project—a regional desalination plant just north of Marina—and recover all its present and future costs from Cal Am's Monterey district ratepayers.
During a two-hour public participation hearing before CPUC Administrative Law Judge Seaneen Wilson this afternoon, more than 40 people spoke up. Most were Cal Am customers critical of the private water company, though a few (mostly in the local hospitality industry) defended Cal Am's proposal and urged the CPUC to expedite the application.
Cal Am is under state orders to dramatically reduce pumping from the district's two primary water sources: the Carmel River and the Seaside Basin. A December 2016 deadline will trigger a 70-percent cutback on river pumping.
Among the comments:
Monterey City Councilman Alan Haffa noted that the City Council voted 5-0 to support the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District's contingency plan, which includes a smaller, publicly owned desalination plant. Councilwoman Libby Downey made a similar point.
Linda Agerbak said it's unfair for ratepayers to undertake all the risks of the project, while Cal Am stockholders are guaranteed a profit. Peter Kaiser followed by saying ratepayers should own the plant if they pay for it. Walter Wagenhals said Cal Am's latest proposal might fail like the last one did, piling more costs onto ratepayers. "I resist that wholeheartedly,” he said.
David Glover of Monterey Rainwater suggested it's cheaper to treat wastewater than to de-salt water, and that a recycled water project would reduce the need for desal.
North County resident Ed Mitchell said the Prunedale Neighbors' Group would be harmed by the extraction of water next to the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project, which aims to hold back seawater intrusion by recycling wastewater for irrigation.
Melody Chrislock said she's seen her water bill spike by a cumulative $1,000 over the past six months and chastised the CPUC for allowing the Cal Am fee hikes: "I don't feel like you guys are on our side at all." John Hall agreed, saying he's seen a 400-percent water bill hike from 2011 to 2012 for his 4-acre property off Highway 68.
Several called for public ownership of the district's water supply. "I'd like my dollars to go to a public utility, not a monopoly," Diane Cotton said.
Helen Rucker, Kay Cline and Bill Weigle of Seaside spoke for public ownership as well. "Those of us from low-income areas are not going to be able to live on this Monterey Peninsula if Cal Am’s rates keep going up," Rucker said.
Janet Brennan of the League of Women Voters of the Monterey Peninsula said her group does, too: "We note that it is Cal Am's failure as steward of the Carmel River that has led to the current situation."
Safwat Malek, president of Ratepayers First, said his group collected 1,700 signatures in favor of the lowest-cost option for a desal plant using public bonds, and public ownership.
Skip Keyzers, another Ratepayers First member, blasted Cal Am: "They have the leakiest pipes probably in the western United States, and the highest rates.” He called the water supply proposal "smoke and mirrors," and predicted its failure.
Ron Weitzman, president of WaterPlus, said a CPUC ruling allowing Cal Am to bypass a county law requiring public ownership of desal plants should apply to competing proposals by DeepWater Desal and the Regional Desalination Project at Moss Landing Commercial Park, too. “There have been too many private deals at the expense of ratepayers," he said.
Herb Aarons predicted the Cal Am proposal will be litigated, driving up ratepayer costs, but never get approved. “We’ll have the worst of all worlds: We’ll have a huge bill, and no water," he said.
Roger Dolan of the Carmel Valley Association Water Committee urged the state to treat Cal Am's proposal as part of a competitive field rather than a monopoly. As such, he said, the CPUC should withdraw as the lead agency, and Cal Am should risk its own capital to pursue the water project at no risk to ratepayers.
Janet Parissi added: "Cal Am has a history of sticking ratepayers for abandoned projects…Trust is gone, frustration is growing and it comes out of our pockets."
Monterey County Hospitality Association Chair Steve McNally, who's general manager of the Hyatt Regency Monterey, said the county's $2 billion hospitality industry would be crippled by a water shortage, which would ripple through the local economy. He asked the CPUC to expedite the Cal Am application and size the desal plant larger than proposed. “We are not talking about growing the industry, we are talking about getting businesses back to where they were before the recession," he said.
Rene Boskof of the Monterey Mariott and MCHA board member Sam Teel agreed. Teel urged the CPUC to inflate the size of Cal Am's proposed desal plant to over 15,000 acre-feet per year, saying a 5,500-acre-foot plant would be like buying a 1-bedroom house for a family of six. “I’m tired of the water wars, I really am," he said. “Tell Cal Am to do it, and to do it right.”
Lorin Letendre, president of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, also encouraged the CPUC to push the Cal Am proposal through. “We need a solution now, with the [state water board] deadline looming ever closer,” he said. "The sooner we get Cal Am off the river, the better.”
Brent Constanz and David Armanasco of DeepWater Desal positioned their competing regional desalination proposal as well along its own way to building a 25,000-acre-foot-per-year plant. "Our plan is moving forward for the region, with or without the Monterey Peninsula," Constantz said.
Nelson Vega said it's the Monterey district ratepayers, not Cal Am, who are to blame. Buy stock in the water company, he said, “but do not hold hostage the rest of the community, which is in fact the employment community…who aren’t here today because they are working.”
Michael Warburton of the Public Trust Alliance—who has collected $535 an hour for his involvement via the CPUC's intervenor compensation process—suggested there's too much litigation subsidized by ratepayers. “The concern of our goup is that Monterey Peninsula ratepayers should not be paying a premium to have their water supply privately owned and controlled," he said.
Dale Hekhuis suggested the parties should all work together better, and that the CPUC should consider all three competing proposals.
Nina Beety of Monterey said Cal Am is “secretly rolling [SmartMeters] out and installing them in sidewalks where children play," creating a “public health emergency."
Amy White of LandWatch Monterey County said it's unclear whether Cal Am has water rights to pump from the Salinas Valley Basin. She encouraged the CPUC to consider alternative projects simultaneously with the Cal Am application, so if the Cal Am project fails, the next option won't start from scratch.
Beverly Beane said, “Ratepayers should own the desal plant that they will pay for,” and said the Cal Am proposal will be mired in "guaranteed legal action against it.”
Paul Bruno of the Seaside Basin Watermaster backed the Cal Am project: "It’s important to stay on track with the current application.” He said the CPUC should consider a larger plant because of the Seaside Basin replenishment.
Nancy Pratt said the stock of American Waterworks, which owns Cal Am, is up significantly since the spring while ratepayers face surging bills. “If I were a shareholder, I would be happy," she said.
She also echoed the call of several speakers, noting the crowded council chamber, to hold the next local public hearing in a larger space. “Monterey Peninsula people DO speak out," she said.
Judge Wilson concluded the hearing by saying the comments would be entered into the public record and made available to CPUC officials. “Whether you spoke or not," she said, "your voice is being heard.”
A second hearing happens at 7pm tonight, Monterey City Hall Council Chambers, 580 Pacific Street, Monterey.