Drilling In

“Anyone can build an open-water intake. That’s easy,” says Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett (center) at the Jan. 14 mayors’ water meeting. “Just like anyone can build a car that pollutes.”

It’s 7pm, Jan. 12, and the parking lot fills up at Carmel’s Unitarian Universalist Church. There are no spiritual sermons planned for the night, but there will be preaching: Public Water Now, a community-based organization devoted to bringing the cheapest, most sustainable water source to the Peninsula, is holding a forum.

In an email sent out nearly a month earlier, the subject of the talk was announced: The slant wells for California American Water’s long-delayed desalination plant, which the group has been researching for more than a year. “Come for the unreported story,” the email read.

Many of the credentials of the evening’s speakers – which were handed out upon entering the church – are impressive, and include graduate degrees from Stanford, Princeton, Cambridge and the Wharton School of Business. The intended message in revealing those credentials seems clear: These are well-educated people, not crackpots.

Carmel Valley resident Myrleen Fisher is first to speak, and emphasizes that slant wells are an expensive, unproven technology that proved scientifically infeasible in Dana Point after 22 months of testing, and economically infeasible in Huntington Beach.

“Cal Am, the water district and the mayors are ignoring evidence that slant wells are a risky business,” she says.

Fisher also bristles at the cost.

“Cal Am is attempting to build the best desal plant money can buy, your money,” she says. “They will probably work toward a Lexus version or a Cadillac version, but we’d be happy with a Ford or Toyota.”

Following Fisher, Monterey resident David Beech explains how both the length and location of the Cal Am’s test well has changed since the original permit application with the California Coastal Commission. Not only is the well drawing from the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin’s 180-foot aquifer, it ends about 30 feet seaward of mean high tide line, meaning that it’s drawing in water from under the dunes.

Michael Baer, a retired science teacher, comes after Beech, and says that proper testing should be lengthy in order to produce reliable results. He adds, however, that because of the time pressure of California Public Utilities Commission’s cease and desist order against Cal Am, which mandates a reduction of pumping from the Carmel River by the end of 2016, there is no time for proper testing. Given that, he says, the slant well project should be abandoned.

IF CAL AM’S PROJECT FAILS, RATEPAYERS WILL BE ON THE HOOK.

Retired statistician Ron Weitzman speaks next, and – as he alleged to CPUC officials last October – says Cal Am’s test monitoring data has been “tampered” with. The language in which he explains this, however, as well as the scatterplot of data he shows as proof, are inscrutable to the layperson.

PWN founder George Riley closes the evening, and covers a broad range of concerns: the high cost of Cal Am’s project, what he views as a lack of state oversight, an environmental impact report he finds inadequate and a high risk of litigation.

Add it all up, he says, and the community should be entertaining cheaper, more reliable desalination options like Deepwater Desal or the People’s Project, two proposed projects in Moss Landing.

If Cal Am taps the 180-foot aquifer, he adds, Riley also questions whether vertical wells would be cheaper.

Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett, a proponent of the Cal Am project over the last several years, didn’t attend the PWN forum – he was meeting with the chair of State Water Resources Control Board.

When asked about claims made by PWN supporters, Burnett says he’s not interested in reacting.

“What we know is the test well salinity is now up at 92-percent saltwater, and it started out at 70-percent,” he says. “We want it to be in the 94-percent range, but the fact is that it’s trending upward at a good clip, and it’s almost where we need it to be.”

As for the concerns about the project’s cost, Burnett says, “I care about the ocean, my constituents care about the ocean.

“We would be outraged if a New Jersey company came in here and proposed something and damaged our marine sanctuary,” he says. “People may dislike Cal Am, but in this regard, they are doing the right thing: They are honoring our love of the oceans.

Cal Am spokesperson Catherine Stedman was at the PWN forum, as was Cal Am project manager Ian Crooks. Speaking on the phone in the days after, they offer a rebuttal.

As for the test well location, Stedman says, “The only significance of that argument was if we were drawing more groundwater. But the facts are proving that we’re pulling more ocean water.”

When asked about Weitzman’s tampering assertions, Crooks says the CPUC has two independent firms analyzing the data, including scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“These guys are experts,” he says. “I have full confidence there is no data tampering going on.”

Speaking to the question of a vertical versus a slant well, Crooks says that not only does a slant well have more surface to draw in water, resulting in fewer wells, he says they cause seawater to fill the vacuum created by pumping.

“The ocean keeps the groundwater up,” he says, “so you can just keep [pumping].”

Cal Am also resolved a key water rights concern last week when it reached a tentative agreement to provide the Castroville Community Services District with any fresh water taken from the slant wells, resolving the legal requirement that no fresh water be exported from the Salinas Valley.

Even in the best case scenario, the slant well water will be pricey. In the bigger of the two proposed Cal Am projects, Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, estimates the cost per acre foot at $4,364 over the project’s lifecycle.

That’s almost double what People’s Project or Deepwater Desal estimate, but there’s a catch: If Cal Am’s project fails, the ratepayers will be on the hook to pay for whatever went into the project, what Stoldt calls stranded costs. And once Cal Am has spent a certain amount – and Stoldt doesn’t know what that number is – neither of the competing projects can be cheaper.

“I agree with the ratepayers: It’s a very expensive project and very expensive water,” he says. “But it’s kind of like, if you’re in Alaska, you pay more for heat.”

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