Monterey County must rescind all approvals of California American Water's proposed desalination project, per an order from a Monterey County Superior Court judge who earlier this year found the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving the project without identifying a water source.
The ruling was handed down April 3 by Judge Lydia Villarreal, who on Jan. 21 granted in part—and denied in part—a writ requested by the Marina Coast Water District regarding the 2019 approvals of the desal plant component of Cal Am's Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. On Jan. 29, in response to Villarreal's first order, Cal Am and the county filed a letter with the court requesting clarification or a limited writ on the issue.
Per Villarreal's April 3 order, that request for the limited writ was denied, and the county's approval of the permit is to be set aside so the county can comply with CEQA requirements.
The Marina Coast Water District lauded Villarreal's decision, with board President Jan Shriner stating in a press release, "We're pleased the court validated our concerns and saw clearly why approval had to be wholly rescinded."
At the time the county approved the desal project, the city of Marina had already denied the water source permit needed by Cal Am. Marina officials have opposed the desal plant due to concerns about the water utility's plan to locate slant wells to furnish the plant with water in Marina.
Cal Am appealed the city's denial to the California Coastal Commission, but the issue of whether or not Cal Am could obtain the water source analyzed in the environmental impact report became "uncertain and speculative." Twice, Coastal Commission staff recommended commissioners deny Cal Am's appeal of Marina's decision not to grant the water source permit.
The latest of those recommendations, from August 2020, found numerous issues with the proposed desal plant, including impacts to environmentally sensitive dune habitat, groundwater drawdown beneath vernal ponds and wetlands; placement of anchors on the ocean floor for buoy monitoring; Cal Am's lack of groundwater rights or access to a pipeline to deliver the water; and environmental justice issues.
Commissioners, however, never actually voted on Cal Am's appeal—the utility withdrew its request at the last minute last year before a hearing. They subsequently refiled their application, meaning the court's ruling is still relevant.
The county's CEQA violation adds up to a non-compliant statement of overriding considerations—a requirement that a decision-making agency detail its process of weighing a project's overall benefits (such as economic, social and technological) against any significant environmental impacts, the Marina Coast Water District, which has been fighting against the desal project for years, stated in a press release.
In a statement provided by Cal Am spokesperson Catherine Stedman, the utility pledge to proceed despite the ruling.
"The court’s decision lays out a process before us with county that will take time. But it is a far cry from the denial of the project that Marina Coast claims," the statement reads.
"The court only ruled in favor of MCWD on a single, technical issue of whether the county had adequately supported its conclusion that the project’s benefits outweigh its temporary construction air quality and traffic impacts, which is the statement of overriding considerations the County now has to address…We look forward to cooperating with the county as they work to provide further technical support for the staff and board’s position and approval of the project."