Water Wars

Melodie Chrislock of Public Water Now wants to see an expanded recycled water supply, which is cheaper than desalinated water.

Over email, local water activists concocted a secret plan to derail a vote that would potentially kill one water project and bolster the prospects of another. The idea was to stage a “filibuster” of the Monterey One Water board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, May 26. (Virtual meeting starts at 6pm. Watch here: https://bit.ly/M1Waterfight)

The board is considering whether to deny an environmental certification for an expansion of the Pure Water Monterey facility, the brand-new water reclamation project near Marina. Without water supply from the expansion, the activists’ nemesis, California American Water, would be more likely to secure permits for a massive desalination plant. 

“We are going to try to drag this meeting into the night with so many public comments that they have to reschedule their vote,” wrote Melodie Chrislock, the managing director of Public Water Now. “This buys time for legal action.”

Chrislock thought that her email would only land in the inboxes of sympathizers. But a screenshot of the email was posted on Twitter by an adversary of Public Water Now. 

Asked about the filibuster plan after it was revealed, Chrislock says, “I doubt that it’s going to happen anymore.” She says the board would likely reduce the time provided for public comment. But she still hopes many tune in to the meeting, “to show the board that the community is watching.”

Before it became controversial, the expansion of Pure Water Monterey was long a consensus project considered a sensible backup plan to the proposed desalination project. One way or another, the thinking went, the Monterey Peninsula must develop a new water supply. Monterey One Water and its sister agency, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, approved spending $1 million in taxpayer money to fulfill the environmental review requirements and create a shelf-ready project. 

But as Cal Am’s desalination project began facing regulatory challenges, the situation changed into what seems like a zero-sum game. If the water recycling expansion moved forward, the desalination plant likely wouldn’t. 

So Cal Am and its allies—chiefly agriculture and tourism interests—moved to quash the expansion project, arguing that the project’s environmental impacts were much larger than projected in technical reports. On April 27, the board of M1W narrowly rejected a motion to certify the project’s environmental documents. Now the board will vote on whether to reject the environmental review and order staff to cease all work on the expansion project.

The voices on the board who want to defeat the expansion have done more than criticize the environmental documents. They have attacked their own staff and consultants who wrote the documents. Board member John Phillips, for example, said he “could not rely on staff,” and characterized their work as incomplete. 

Elected government boards have the freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions and override staff recommendations. But it is rare for them to malign their own employees in the process.  

M1W General Manager Paul Sciuto says the past months have been “difficult” for him and his staff. 

“We have tried our hardest to carry out the board’s direction and we feel that we have kept the board informed and done what the board has asked of us,” he says. “To receive critical comments now when we have had the chance to communicate for the past year is difficult.”

He says he recognizes this is a charged issue, but that he would have liked to address dissatisfaction with his performance. “To my recollection, I have not had a formal discussion about not doing what the board has asked,” Sciuto says.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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