Marina dunes

The Cemex property in Marina is the location where Cal Am proposes drilling slant wells to supply its desal plant with brackish water. 

California American Water is considering whether to withdraw a request to build seawater pumps in Marina to supply its proposed desalination plant as the project faces mounting technical and regulatory challenges. 

The water utility reached this crossroads after receiving a letter from the California Coastal Commission on Jan. 28 detailing a slew of unresolved issues. “We recommend that Cal Am withdraw its application and re-submit it at a later time once the various issues are more fully resolved,” commission representative Tom Luster wrote in the letter. 

A hearing on the application had been scheduled for the commission’s March meeting near Santa Cruz. But if Cal Am follows the recommendation, the company might have to wait until next year for the commission to take up the matter again, forcing a major delay of a project that’s already behind schedule. 

Looming over the wrangling is a 25-year-old state order to drastically reduce pumping from the Carmel River and devise a new supply of water for the Monterey Peninsula. 

The plan for the desalination plant was approved last year by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, but the pumps for the plant would be located in the jurisdiction of the city of Marina, which has denied Cal Am a necessary permit. Cal Am is in the process of challenging the denial at the Coastal Commission. The utility also needs the commission to approve other coastal infrastructure for the project. 

Last November, the commission heard more than seven hours of arguments for and against Cal Am’s request. At the end of the meeting, the commissioners asked for more information and analysis from staff. They wanted more hydrogeologic research about the likely impacts of the pumps on water in the aquifers underneath Marina. The city has long argued that Cal Am would be removing fresh groundwater water it is not entitled to and that its modeling shows the pumps would advance the flow of saltwater inland in violation of the law. 

Commission staff were also tasked with evaluating competing figures about the projected demand for water on the Monterey Peninsula. The plant was sized according to one set of figures approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. More recently, the staff of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District have said that demand has dropped enough for policymakers to consider abandoning desal in favor of ramping up the region’s wastewater purification and recycling program. 

In his letter to Cal Am, Luster wrote that the additional work cannot be completed in time for the March meeting: “It appears likely at this point that we will need to conduct additional modeling exercises, possibly with new data, to establish a higher degree certainty about the expected effects of Cal Am's project on nearby aquifers. We are also evaluating new data about different water supply and demand projections.”

Luster adds in an interview that Cal Am would be free to insist on a hearing in March anyway but that without new analysis, his previous report recommending that commissioners deny Cal Am’s permit would stand as is. 

At least two other obstacles are also in the way. The desalination project relies on the flow of water through a pipeline that’s owned by the Marina Coast Water District but the district won’t allow it. Cal Am says that a past contract guarantees it the use of the pipeline; the matter is now in court. Also, Cal Am must obtain a permit for a liner for the plant’s outfall pipe. Whose jurisdiction is that? The city of Marina, which is all but guaranteed to deny such a permit, meaning that Cal Am would be forced to turn to Coastal Commission once again. 

Cal Am spokesperson Catherine Stedman says the company is “evaluating our options. We plan to respond soon.”

One potential way out of the conundrum for Cal Am is to secure an alternative supply of brackish water to feed into its already-approved desalination plant. Such a supply might come from a series wells proposed by the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Ian Crooks, a vice president at Cal Am, says that his company has begun to look at the possibility.

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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