The water utility for the Monterey Peninsula has overcome widespread opposition among ratepayers’ to its proposed desalination plant, securing a critical development permit from the county’s Board of Supervisors on July 15.
After nearly six and a half hours of public hearing and deliberation, the board voted 3-2 to allow California American Water to break ground on the plant ahead of a September deadline imposed by state water official. Ultimately, the cost of construction is expected to reach $329 million or more.
The project can still get entangled at the California Coastal Commission, which is expected to review the company’s application for shorefront pumps to supply the plant with brackish water in November. Pending and future litigation could also tie up the project on issues such as whether Cal Am is entitled to any groundwater that gets tapped by the intake pumps.
The vote broke down along the county’s geographic divide with supervisors John Phillips, Chris Lopez and Luis Alejo, who represent Salinas Valley districts, voting in favor. Citing a recommendation by county planning and technical staff, Alejo said, “I feel comfortable moving forward today.”
Philips spoke about the decades of wrangling over the Peninsula’s water supply the need to unburden the Carmel River. “We have struggled to find a solution and now we have finally found one apparently,” he said.
Supervisors Mary Adams and Jane Parker, who represent constituents on the Peninsula whose water rates are guaranteed to shoot up in order to pay for Cal Am’s plan, voted against granting the permit.
During the board’s deliberations, Adams attempted to blunt the claim that the county must commit to desalination immediately or else run out of time to address the problem. To the express irritation of Philips, the board chair, she invited a series of experts and officials to answer questions about alternative contingencies.
Adams asked county planner Craig Spencer, for example, how long it would take to complete an additional environmental review of the desalination project coupled with an assessment of a competing water supply proposal—an expansion of the regional water recycling program. He said it would take about a year.
When David Stoldt, the general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, appeared before the board, Adams asked him what would happen if construction on plant didn’t start by the state’s September milestone.
“Nothing,” he answered. Stoldt explained that through conservation and other measures, the Peninsula has already reduced its usage of Carmel Rivers water to levels below the milestone’s requirement.
With that answer in hand, Adams proposed a motion—that failed—to table the decision on the plant until after the Coastal Commission decides on whether to allow intake wells within the coastal zone in the Marina.
Supervisors Chris Lopez mostly held his silence throughout the deliberations. He said he was concerned about the high cost of the desalination plant but cast his vote in favor anyway.
Ultimately, Cal Am prevailed over the challenges to its permit filed by the Marina Coast Water District, and the Public Water Now, a group pushing for a public buyout of the utility local water system.
The result of the votes leaves these groups with few remaining ways to fight Cal Am. Public Water Now’s director, Melodie Chrislock, who was allowed to a brief few words at the end of the meeting vowed to carry the struggle. She threatened to go to court and ask a judge to adjudicate rights over groundwater in the Salinas Valley basin, which would put her group directly at odds with farmers.