Monterey County Planning Commission

California American Water secured a critical development permit for its proposed desalination plant north of Marina on Wednesday, April 24, with a 6-4 vote by the Monterey County Planning Commission.

Proponents of the $329 million project described it to commissioners as a historic and last-ditch opportunity to provide the Monterey Peninsula with a sustainable and bountiful water supply in compliance with a state order to drastically reduce pumping from the Carmel River.

“This is probably the most important project you will ever have in front of this commission,” said Tony Lombardo, a veteran attorney representing Cal Am. In a statement that would be echoed in public comment by members of the business community, Lombardo said desal is needed for economic development. Hedging his message of inevitability, he also told commissioners that the scope of their authority is limited by certain statutes and decisions by other public agencies.  

Craig Spencer, a county planner, recommended that the commission approve the project saying that no significant new information has come in to warrant additional review. He said without an alternative water supply to the Carmel River by December 31, 2021 mandatory pumping reductions would kick in, “which would lead to water rationing.”

Opposition to the project came from the four commissioners representing District 4 and District 5; the former includes the location where the desal plant would be located, and both encompass Cal Am’s service area and local customer base of 40,000 ratepayers.

“It’s extremely expensive and will double or triple the rates we pay now,” said Commissioner Keith Vandevere.

Cal Am recently filed a request with regulators for a rate hike that would raise the average monthly bill from $76 to $93, including the first increase related to the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. Cal Am says the average bill is projected to eventually reach $135.

Vandevere and the other three commissioners who voted against said that planning staff did not prepare complete enough information for them to make an informed decision.

“I want to support this project but I can't because I don’t know what it is,” said Commissioner Martha Diehl. She said that because of all the unknowns there’s a chance the plant will not be completed: “I don’t want to be party to a bridge nowhere situation.”

Alvin Edwards, a longtime critic of Cal Am and a Monterey Peninsula Water Management District board member, watched a livestream of the commission deliberations decision. He says that the project could only be approved because the commissioners are appointed and not accountable to voters. “The Planning Commission needs to be elected, too,” he says. The current political configuration, he says, allows “Cal Am to hold the Peninsula hostage.”

While everyone agrees that developing a new water supply is paramount, some are advocating for expanding the recycling program Pure Water Monterey instead of building a desalination facility.

They say that desal is designed to meet water demand far beyond the Peninsula’s needs and that Cal Am is only pursuing it in order to pass the cost onto consumers and draw a profit. “Whether or not the plant ever produces water, doesn't matter,” Melodie Chrislock of Public Water Now, told the Planning Commission. “Ratepayers are on the hook.”

Chrislock said her group numbers 3,500 and that they are lending support to the city of Marina and its water officials. Marina officials have said it’s unfair for their city to shoulder the burden of hosting the desal plant’s water intake wells and that those wells would threaten the city’s own water basin because of the likelihood of saltwater intrusion.

Many of the technical objections raised by opponents were expressed only during the public comment period, rather than in the official reports submitted into the record. Commission staff insisted that they kept out only discredited information.

To build the plant, Cal Am also requires a permit from the city of Marina. That city’s Planning Commission denied Cal Am’s permit application, and Cal Am has appealed to City Council, which is scheduled to vote on that appeal on April 30. If they deny Cal Am’s appeal, which they are expected to do, Cal Am has said it will appeal to the California Coastal Commission.

To meet a deadline imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board, Cal Am is supposed to begin construction on the desal plant by the end of September.

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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