Water Pressure

The interlake tunnel project alone is expected to cost more than $47 million. The tunnel would create additional water storage.

For 26 years at the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, Brent Buche has handled everything from engineering tasks for large projects—things like helping design the rubber dam on the Salinas River, and modifications to the Nacimiento Dam—to financial planning for the fiscally fraught agency. For the last four years, he's served as deputy general manager. 

Today, July 1, he takes on a new role as general manager of the MCWRA, though he's already occupied the corner office for about a week, after his colleagues rearranged his desk while he was on vacation. 

"The titles change, but a lot of the work I'm doing doesn't change," Buche says. "We're a  small agency with a lot of work."

That work includes, most immediately, submitting a plan to the Division of Safety of Dams at the California Department of Water Resources. In a letter to MCWRA in April, state officials ordered the agency to make major safety upgrades to San Antonio spillway by Nov. 1, 2024, and interim upgrades by Nov. 1, 2019. 

The state downgraded the dam's safety rating from "satisfactory" to "fair."

Those improvements are expected to run about $40 million, Buche estimates. 

And that's on top of other smaller deferred maintenance projects, including things like pipeline upgrades. 

"The San Antonio spillway has to be done. In my mind, that's at the top of the list," Buche says. "The big challenge is not only the amount of work we have to do, but the cost of all that work."

After the dam and other deferred maintenance comes the next priority, albeit at a higher price tag: the proposed interlake tunnel which would create additional water storage between the two reservoirs, San Antonio and Nacimiento.  The 11,000-foot pipeline would help create an estimated 40,500 acre-feet of additional storage in Lake San Antonio.

While the dam safety upgrades and other deferred maintenance for MCWRA run in the tens of millions, the interlake tunnel would be in the hundreds of millions. Buche says he is working on a breakdown of the the $150 million estimated price tag to present to the County Board of Supervisors on July 23.

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(State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, secured a $17 million line item in the state budget for the tunnel. His late father, then employed by the Army Corps of Engineers, helped to construct the original dam in the 1950s.) 

The big question for MCWRA remains how to pay for those projects—will it be a special tax, or a Prop. 218 tax, which doesn't require voter approval?—and those requests will come at the same time a new agency, the Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency, is collecting new fees from Salinas Valley water consumers. 

Buche replaces interim GM Shauna Lorrance who led the beginning stages of difficult financial planning. Lorrance took over for David Chardavoyne, who led the agency after the fallout from the failed regional desalination project which collapsed after revelations that a former Monterey County Water Resources Agency board member, Steve Collins, was being paid by a project contractor via an agreement with another agency, Marina Coast Water District. An investigation also revealed he had a business venture on the side with then-GM Curtis Weeks. 

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved Buche's post on June 18. 

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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