Monterey One Water just celebrated the one-year anniversary of delivering recycled wastewater via the Pure Water Monterey project. The advanced filtration system is used on treated sewage water, which is then injected deep underground where the new supply will be mixed with the existing water supply.
Even before phase one of the Pure Water Monterey project was online, the board of M1W began debating an expansion of the project. But that expansion has been on ice for months, after the M1W board voted 11-10 (on a weighted vote) in April of 2020 not to proceed.
It's about to come back.
The denial back in April 2020 was not because the board viewed the project as flawed, but primarily because it became a proxy vote for whether or not board members supported California American Water's since-withdrawn proposal for a desalination plant in Marina—an expanded Pure Water Monterey would lead to more water supply for the Monterey Peninsula, minimizing the sense of urgency that a desal plant was an essential (and costly) piece of the region's water supply future.
A few things have happened since the M1W board halted the expansion project. For one, Cal Am withdrew its earlier desalination plant proposal. Even more consequential were elections in November 2020, that saw several new candidates achieve victory after campaigning on a platform that included a pledge to back an expanded Pure Water Monterey project. (The M1W board is made up of representatives from various city councils and water district boards.)
Those changes bring us to the M1W board meeting of Feb. 22, when the board had its first formal opportunity to reconsider the Pure Water Monterey expansion. The overall sentiment was yes.
County Supervisor/M1W board member John Phillips had been a staunch opponent of expansion in the past. "The biggest change has been the difference in complexion of the board," he said. "We all saw this coming—but it is a pretty big difference in direction."
The difference in direction is this: The formal document required to proceed with an expanded project is a supplemental environmental impact report, or SEIR. That document was completed last year, and has since been collecting dust.
On Monday, Feb. 22, the board voted to dust it off and proceed with necessary updates to that document to make it more current (for instance, two new injection wells have been authorized since the SEIR was first written).
All 10 board members voted unanimously, despite the previously divisive issue, to take the SEIR off the shelf and begin updating it for possible reconsideration. Staff of M1W will present more formally on an updated SEIR in March, seeking direction on a more specific document.
Part of that is because some members of the board are caught in a difficult decision: They previously opposed the expansion, but the political tides have turned and the future of Cal Am's desal project is looking more uncertain.
They also aim to have an airtight, legally defensible document in case past opponents of the expansion sue M1W.
"We can’t eliminate litigation but we can reduce that possibility," said Scott Donaldson, a newly elected Del Rey Oaks City Council member who campaigned on a pro-recycled water platform. "I want to make sure it’s the best document that it could possibly be."
The Feb. 22 discussion on the subject diverged from discussions past in how much everyone agreed. Even Tony Lombardo, an attorney representing Cal Am, spoke in support of the direction to refresh the SEIR—but he noted that by Cal Am's calculations, even expanding the Pure Water Monterey system doesn't provide enough long-term water supply.
Another step that board members and staff will take in the next month before returning with a more formal vote on the document is to check back in with water districts and constituents that have been at odds over the project.
"I would be one of the people that needs to go back and talk to some people," said board member/Salinas City Councilmember Christie Cromeenes. "I need some time to mull everything over before actually making a definitive decision."
That next meeting is scheduled for March 29 at 6pm.