Wendy Root Askew Mask

Board of Supervisors Chair Wendy Root Askew was the lone no vote in advancing the private desalination plant question. 

The question of whether private ownership of desalination plants will be allowed in Monterey County remains unresolved, but supervisors on Oct. 12 voted 4-1 to direct county staff to prepare a study on overturning the 32-year prohibition on private ownership. 

A divided Board of Supervisors began discussing a possible repeal over the ban on private desalination in August, punting the decision to Sept. 21 and then to Oct. 12. Now, at the behest of the board, staff will take 30 to 45 days to analyze whether further environmental review is needed—an analysis on whether more analysis is necessary—before a vote on the repeal can be made by supervisors. 

County Counsel Les Girard told the board that if more environmental review is required, it would further delay a vote on the repeal. 

The law has been thrust into the spotlight as Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp., a publicly traded, $11 billion Canada-based company, has proposed construction of what could be a massive regional desalination plant in Moss Landing. The project has the potential to produce 32,000 acre-feet of drinking water when built out. For comparison, private utility California American Water's now-stalled desalination plant estimated its production at 6,200 acre-feet of water. An acre foot is about 326,000 gallons of water, the average annual consumption for one-to-two households. 

District 2 Supervisor John Phillips has led the charge on repealing the prohibition, with the support of Supervisors Luis Alejo and Chris Lopez. Each of the three supervisors said they see desalination as the future of water in California and Monterey County and that private enterprise needs a seat at the table, as the public sector has made little-to-no progress on desalination plants. With seawater intrusion becoming a greater threat to North County growers, Phillips, Alejo and Lopez see a privately-owned desalination plant as an urgent water supply option. 

Supervisors Mary Adams and Wendy Root Askew have been less enthusiastic about the change. Adams has pressed for more community meetings that bring all stakeholders and possible solutions to the table. Root Askew has warned about going down the path of private ownership of water, citing the problems the Monterey Peninsula has encountered with private utility California American Water, which now faces the prospect of a public buyout of its assets. 

Although Adams supported the direction to staff, with Phillips, Lopez and Alejo, to analyze whether more analysis was required, she said wanted the county to hire an "uber water" consultant to take the lead on a regional meeting for water solutions. 

Root Askew, the lone no vote, said she was committed to working on regional water solutions but could not support advancing the private desalination question. 

Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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