Among the last steps in filtering sewage into drinking water is reverse osmosis. In the Pure Water Monterey plant, water in white tubes (left) is filtered through straws a fraction the size of a human hair.

Monterey One Water’s effort to expand its Pure Water Monterey project and provide more clean water to the Peninsula through filtering and recycling sewage took a significant step forward on March 29. The agency’s board of directors said yes to updating a required study on the project’s environmental impact.

Completion and the board’s certification of the study are prerequisites for a Pure Water Monterey expansion, which has been controversial in recent years. The board’s support signals shifting political tides around the issue.

Less than a year ago, the M1W board voted against certification of the completed study, known as a supplemental environmental impact report, or SEIR. The decision was seen as a proxy vote for whether the board, made up of elected officials across the Peninsula and Salinas Valley, supported California American Water’s then-proposed desalination plant in Marina. Pure Water Monterey’s expansion was, and is, seen as a threat to the plant.

Since that April 2020 vote, Cal Am has withdrawn its application for the desalination plant and the 2020 election ushered in a number of candidates in favor of Pure Water Monterey expansion. Those elections tilted the scales of the Monterey One Water board enough that, on Feb. 22, they voted to dust off the SEIR.

The 7-3 vote on March 29 gave M1W staff the green light to hire consultants and update the year-old study for $230,000, with Monterey Peninsula Water Management District picking up 75 percent of the cost. (The initial study cost $1.3 million.) The completed study could come back to the board for certification by April 26.

County Supervisor John Phillips, Salinas City Councilmember Christie Cromeenes and Sand City Mayor Mary Ann Carbone opposed the SEIR update. Phillips and Cromeenes voiced concern that pushing the study forward would open the board to increased pressure from pro-expansion lobbyists.

Cromeenes said it was important for the board to “hold our ground” and not move forward with a project the agency could not afford.

Monterey City Councilmember Tyller Williamson agrees that M1W could not fund the expansion alone, and says the project could not move forward without a water purchase agreement, ideally with Cal Am, the utility that serves the Monterey Peninsula.

“This does put pressure on Cal Am to move forward with [a water purchase agreement],” Williamson says. “It’s cheaper for ratepayers and it’s more environmentally friendly.”

The expansion of Pure Water Monterey and Cal Am’s desal plant are proposals to solve the same water crisis. Supporters say Pure Water Monterey’s expansion would be less expensive and better for the environment. Desalination supporters are concerned that even an expanded Pure Water Monterey would not meet the Peninsula’s water demands.

“More water for the Peninsula is a good idea,” Phillips says. “But if we’re going to say this expansion is going to be the sole provider for the Peninsula, that’s not a good idea.”

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