Obscure Seaside Watermaster board vote makes desal plant bigger

Watery Logic: Seaside Mayor Felix Bachofner pushed to replenish the Seaside Basin more quickly. Others viewed that as a back-door attempt to produce extra desal water for growth.

Monterey County already has enough water agencies to drown in. Each one is neck-deep in legal and technical issues few can understand, but many pay for. Last week, the most under-the-radar water agency of all made a decision that could jack up California American Water bills another $5 million to $10 million.

The Seaside Groundwater Basin Watermaster was created after a 2006 Superior Court ruling ordered reduced groundwater pumping from the basin. Drawing too much runs the risk of seawater intrusion, which turns the fresh aquifer salty. It also threatens a precious groundwater supply in the case of drought. 

Cal Am is currently drawing 2,600 acre-feet per year from the basin, according to Cal Am General Manager Eric Sabolsice. By 2021 it must get down to the “natural safe yield” of 1,474 acre-feet. And once a new water supply is online (the state deadline is December 2016), Cal Am must further reduce its pumping to pay the basin back for all the excess water it’s taken.

A couple months ago, Cal Am recommended a 50-year payback schedule, which would leave an extra 350 acre-feet of water in the basin every year. An ad hoc watermaster committee also considered repayment scenarios of 25 and 10 years, corresponding to 700 and 1,750 acre-feet per year, respectively.

Whatever extra water is left in the basin will have to be produced by the desalination plant in Cal Am’s proposed Water Supply Project. Desal water is expected to cost close to $3,000 per acre-foot, and Cal Am’s ratepayers – mostly residents and businesses on the Monterey Peninsula – will foot the bill. So a faster basin payback triggers a bigger desal plant, costing ratepayers more than a slower payback.

“At some point for the health of the basin, you do want to replenish,” says Monterey Peninsula Water Management District General Manager Dave Stoldt. “The question is how fast, and at what cost.”

Here’s where the riptide of local land-use politics come in. A faster basin payback not only costs more, but it also justifies a larger desal plant. And once the basin is fully replenished, a bigger desal plant means extra water for development on a Peninsula whose growth has been mostly constrained by a water-supply shortage.

Paying back the Seaside Basin over 50 years would increase the desal plant’s output by about 300,000 gallons per day, Sabolsice says. A 25-year payback would bump the plant’s output by 600,000 gallons per day, and a 10-year payback would mean 1.5 million extra gallons per day.

At a special meeting Nov. 29, the watermaster board voted for a 25-year payback, beginning the first year the desal plant is online. 

Board Chairman Paul Bruno describes it as a Goldilocks solution. “Too quick a time frame would require the building of a larger plant and have a greater impact on the ratepayers,” he says. “Too long a time frame wouldn’t replenish the basin in a timely manner.”

But outgoing Seaside Mayor Felix Bachofner, one of two board members who voted against the 25-year payback, argues for a 10-year schedule on two grounds: that it’s safer to replenish the basin quickly, and that a bigger desal plant will give Seaside more opportunities for growth.

“I’m sick and tired of us being stuck in almost every possible regard,” he says, “because everybody at almost every level is depleting stuff.”

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