The most popular live-streamed content in Monterey County on Monday night, April 27, might have been the virtual board meeting of the local water treatment agency. At one point, during a heated debate over the finer points of the California Environmental Quality Act, 155 people were tuned in to the Zoom meeting of the Monterey One Water board.
On a technical level, the board members were discussing whether to certify a supplemental environmental impact report for a water recycling project. But what was potentially at stake—and why so many people cared to participate—was hundreds of millions of dollars in public infrastructure projects and the future of development on the Monterey Peninsula.
By a razor-thin margin, an alliance of Salinas Valley agricultural interests, California American Water and the hospitality industry won, sinking the chances of one proposed fix to the Monterey Peninsula’s perennial water shortage. By an 11-10 weighted vote, they managed to block the environmental report because it would have jeopardized their preferred water project, a $329-million desalination plant near Marina. The future of the desalination plant depends on getting a permit from the California Coastal Commission, but the commission’s staff has recommended against granting Cal Am a permit, saying that a better option—the water recycling project—has emerged.
Known as the second phase expansion of Pure Water Monterey plant (which is in operation), this project went from being a universally supported water supply backup to a political football in the long-standing water wars.
As Molly Evans, a member of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District board, pointed out, more than $1 million in taxpayer money had been spent on the environmental review. The funding was approved unanimously by her district and Monterey One Water.
“The taxpayers and the ratepayers have provided the funding for this endeavor,” she said. “This document meets all the criteria to be certified. Your personal feelings toward this project have no relevance to certifying this document.”
One of the leading voices on the board against certifying the environmental report was John Phillips, a Monterey County Supervisor representing North County, who acknowledged how unusual his position was. “Normally you glance over [the environmental impact report] and make sure the right boxes have been ticked,” he said. But hearing comments in opposition from the city of Salinas, Monterey County Farm Bureau and Monterey County Water Resources Agency gave him pause: “I did my own research because I realized I could not rely on staff,” he said.
On the other side of the issue, supporting the conclusion by M1W staff, were M1W board members from Pacific Grove, Seaside, Monterey, and Marina Coast Water District. They were backed by environmentalists and nonprofits like Landwatch and Public Water Now.
In a reversal of their usual roles, these groups argued that the EIR adequately addressed environmental concerns, while commonly pro-business voices, like board member John Gaglioti and attorney Tony Lombardo, raised environmental concerns.
Gaglioti called for an additional vote, proposing to go one step further than simply rejecting the environmental review. He sought to terminate all future action on the matter and seal the end of the water recycling expansion project. But this time, his side didn’t have a majority. It lost one board member with the sudden defection of M1W board member Linda Grier, who comes from and usually votes with Salinas Valley interests.
In hours of debate, almost no one spoke about how the pandemic might affect water demand and public finances.