After more than a decade in the trying, a major desalination plant to serve the Monterey Peninsula has cleared a significant hurdle—in theory, at least.
In a 13-hour meeting that adjourned just after 10pm on Thursday, Nov. 17, the California Coastal Commission approved a conditional coastal development permit for California American Water, the private water utility that serves the greater Monterey Peninsula, to build a desalination project in neighboring Marina, a city whose residents are vehemently opposed to it, and who would not be served by it.
One thing that was continually brought up during the meeting, and that was acknowledged in the Coastal Commission’s staff report that recommended approval (with many conditions, some potentially insurmountable), is that the project is rife with complexity, both from technical and environmental justice standpoints.
The Board of Supervisors chambers in Salinas, where the meeting was held, was standing room-only when the meeting convened at 9am, and Coastal Commission Chair Donne Brownsey urged all those standing to head to an overflow room on the second floor. There was also a viewing room set up at Marina City Hall, where about 20 Marina residents later spoke in public comment.
In all, hundreds of local residents were tuned in to the meeting, and the “for” or “against” camps were the usual suspects.
The against crowd were Cal Am ratepayers concerned about the cost of the water—and the lack of demand for it—along with Marina residents and officials who voiced concerns about the potential impacts the project would have on that city’s water supply. There was also concern over a private company building a desalination project with a field of slant wells on one of only three potential access points to Marina’s coastline, against the will of the city’s residents.
The project, they argued, would impact both environmentally sensitive habitat, as well as the viewshed for a planned boardwalk on the property on Marina’s beach that is owned by Cemex, a multinational building materials company based in Mexico that operated the last coastal sand mine America, which shut down in 2020 after orders from the Coastal Commission and other state agencies.
The city of Marina has long opposed Cal Am’s project—and is in active litigation fighting it, even before this approval—and as proposed, will not receive any water from it.
One question that remained unanswered was who would pay for the project, given that the plant will initially have the capacity to produce 4.8 million gallons per day, if it’s built, and that with the planned expansion of Pure Water Monterey, a recycled water project, demand for the water won’t be expected until at least 2040, and possibly many years after that. This despite the fact that sea level rise could force a relocation of the proposed slant well field as soon as 25 years.
Who pays for it all will ultimately be decided by the California Public Utilities Commission, which approved a 6.4 mgd project in 2018, which means Cal Am will have to go back to the CPUC for approval, as the project has changed since then.
At the time of CPUC approval in 2018, the cost was capped by the CPUC at just under $300 million, a cost that is expected to go up considerably, though Cal Am still has yet to update its cost estimates since 2017.
The “for” crowd included hospitality executives who voiced concerns about their employees being unable to afford housing near their workplaces, as well as agricultural interests in the Salinas Valley—who have long opposed any water from the Salinas Valley being piped elsewhere (as is the case with Pure Water Monterey)—and those representing various labor and construction interests.
Early in the public testimony, some speakers—including retiring District 2 Supervisor John Phillips and Monterey County Water Resources Agency General Manager Brent Buche—sought to call into question the long-term viability of sourcewater for Pure Water Monterey, given that climate change is exacerbating drought in the West.
Paul Sciuto, general manager of Monterey One Water, which operates Pure Water Monterey, then delivered a presentation to the commissioners that sought to debunk those concerns.
Monterey Peninsula Water Management District General Manager Dave Stoldt soon followed with a presentation that demonstrated how Cal Am’s projected water demand counted both people, empty lots, and homes, which inaccurately boosts projected water demand estimates.
Testimony from Marina residents included girls from a Brownie troop and students at Marina High, as well as Cal Am ratepayers on the Monterey Peninsula, who voiced their distrust of Cal Am, and pointed out the company’s failure to produce new water for decades—the only new water has come from projects led by MPWMD and M1W.
The urgency of the matter, of course, stems from the 1995 state-imposed cease-and-desist order against Cal Am to stop it’s illegal overpumping of the Carmel River, which Cal Am has thus far failed to meet.
There was an insinuation in much of the testimony that the commission staff, and the commissioners, were under pressure to approve the project after Gov. Gavin Newsom publicly expressed displeasure with the Coastal Commission’s denial of a permit for a proposed desalination project in Huntington Beach this past May.
Newsom put out a statement Nov. 18 reading, “Desalination is an important part of the state’s strategy to address the threats of extreme weather. I support the Coastal Commission’s decision to allow this project to move forward and I’ll continue supporting innovative solutions to bolster our state’s water resilience.”
But there remain questions the commissioners failed to address, primarily: Who pays for a desalination plant when there is no demand for the water? And how much would this project cost? And could it ever meet the conditions of approval, which include an encroachment permit from the city of Marina?
The answer to the last question is likely no, and the approval is expected to be on the receiving end of one or more lawsuits. Perhaps a judge could compel Marina to grant Cal Am that permit, perhaps not.
Either way, it likely raises the price for a voter-approved public buyout of Cal Am by MPWMD—which Cal Am and Salinas Valley electeds have been fighting to stop—and the cost of the litigation, if past is precedent, will likely be passed on to Cal Am’s ratepayers.