Water Jiujitsu

Four years and hundreds of meetings ago, the farmers and elected leaders of the Salinas Valley set out to prove that they can manage their own groundwater supply. They drafted a plan to limit pumping on more than 130 square miles of mostly agricultural land and to invest their own money to end the seepage of ocean water into freshwater aquifers.

This effort – organized by the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency – seemed to be coalescing ahead of a Jan. 31, 2020 deadline imposed by state law. Then, Marina came along.

The city filed a notice with state authorities to create the Marina Groundwater Sustainability Agency, asserting control over a strip of about 450 acres at the coastal edge of the Salinas Valley Basin. This move created a jurisdictional overlap and put Marina in position to possibly halt the groundwater plan for the entire valley.

Marina’s ultimate objective is clear: the beach it claimed is where California American Water hopes to drill wells that would supply its proposed desalination plant. (The city says the wells would harm groundwater by increasing seawater intrusion.)

“Whether it’s Cal Am or other entities that would affect water circumstances here, Marina wants a leadership role to protect above and below ground natural resources in this area,” Mayor Bruce Delgado says.

Gary Petersen, general manager of Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, has urged diplomacy. For now, his board has agreed, voting unanimously on Sept. 12 to negotiate with Marina.

To fend off the threat to its desal dream, however, Cal Am has proposed a more aggressive approach. The company wants the county Board of Supervisors to step in and usurp control over the basin from Marina.

“This could be done,” Petersen told his board. “But it’s not as straightforward as some people think. The ramifications for this decision would be long-lasting and we need to proceed with caution.”

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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