The staff of the California Coastal Commission is recommending that commissioners deny a critical coastal development permit for wells that would supply California American Water’s proposed desalination plant near Marina.
The recommendation, published Monday, Oct. 28, is a major blow to Cal Am ahead of the next commission meeting scheduled for Nov. 13-15 in Half Moon Bay. The vote on the wells will take place on Nov. 14, and hundreds of residents of Monterey County are expected to arrive and voice their support for or opposition to the permit.
In their 110-page report, commission staff cited the relatively high cost of the desal project to the public, possible environmental harm, and the availability of an alternative water project.
Everyone agrees, and the state mandates, that the Monterey Peninsula must develop a new source of water in order to wean off its reliance water from the Carmel River. The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates Cal Am, approved the plan for a desalination plant last year.
The staff report acknowledges the CPUC decision but, it adds, “new information about water supplies and demands shows that there is less need for water from new sources than previously determined.” The reasoning appears to be based on a recent analysis by Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.
Stoldt’s report said that current and future water needs of the region could be satisfied with an expansion of the new water recycling facility near Marina, known as Pure Water Monterey.
The commission report on the matter: “[The expansion project] has progressed from being too ‘speculative’ for the CPUC to consider as a viable alternative, to now being a feasible, well-developed alternative. This Pure Water Monterey expansion would occur entirely outside of the coastal zone and would cause far fewer environmental impacts than Cal Am’s proposed project.”
The expansion is also preferable because it is less costly, according to the report. “[The desal plant] would create substantial hardships for several communities of concern, due to its relatively high water costs,” the report says.
The report also says that that the positioning of slant wells on a beach in Marina would be “environmentally damaging” to sensitive coastal habitat while also limiting public access to the shoreline and recreation.
In a win for Marina officials, commission staff appeared to endorse the view that drawing water through the slant wells could have detrimental effects on nearby groundwater supplies.
Cal Am spokesperson Catherine Stedman provided the following response: “Important to keep in mind this is the recommendation of staff, not a decision from the Coastal Commission. The [California Public Utilities Commission] is the one agency with authority to determine the appropriate demand and supply capacity for our water system."
(The California Public Utilities Commission approved the project, a significant milestone, but it requires project permits from various agencies before the plant can be built.)
“If the Coastal Commission were to deny our permit,” Stedman adds, “we would be under conflicting direction from two state agencies.” With such a conflict, Cal Am would be “unable” to comply with the state water codes and with a state order to cease the overdrafting of the Carmel River, Stedman says.