Salty Feelings

Supervisor John Phillips represents North County, and objected to Monterey Peninsula consituents weighing in against a Moss Landing project: “We’ve talked about trying to work together better.”

Water is a marquee issue in Monterey County. But when it comes to private ownership of desalination plants, something currently prohibited under local law, county lawmakers are divided. For some, private ownership goes against the will of voters and could trigger a future of lengthy legal battles. For others, private ownership offers a chance for market competition and an accelerated path toward solving the county’s water shortages.

The policy question has been thrust onto the dais not by California American Water, which has long advocated for a desalination plant to supply the Monterey Peninsula, but by a proposal from Canada-based Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp., a publicly traded, $11 billion company, to build a desalination plant in Moss Landing. The county-level prohibition against private desalination only impacts private companies not regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, such as Algonquin. The state allows CPUC-regulated companies, such as Cal Am, to own desalination plants and preempt local rules.

With the question in front of them on Sept. 23, county supervisors said they wanted to vote on rescinding the prohibition in three weeks. A heated discussion drew lines in the sand on the policy. Those whose districts encompass large swaths of the county’s agricultural interests – supervisors John Phillips, Chris Lopez and Luis Alejo – said they support rescinding the rule. Those whose districts encompass large swaths of the county’s tourism and coastal interests – supervisors Wendy Root Askew and Mary Adams – said they were not ready to support a change. Only three votes will be needed to rescind the prohibition when the question returns to the supervisors’ chambers on Oct. 12.

“We have support from all over the Salinas Valley,” Phillips said. “I would hope that my colleagues on the bench can work with their people on the Peninsula to try to see us work better together. Almost everyone [that spoke against the project] was not from the Salinas Valley, the impacted area, but was from the Monterey Peninsula.”

Citing Measure J, the referendum approved by Monterey Peninsula voters in 2018 to initiate a public buyout of private utility Cal Am, Adams said allowing private ownership of desalination would conflict with a majority of her constituents’ opinions. However, she stopped short of saying she was against private ownership of desal.

“If the five of us don’t get together on this, we’re going to go down in history as never having the courage to stand up and look at this in a bigger, broader view,” Adams said, before pushing for more stakeholder meetings.

The project has been proposed by Algonquin subsidiary Liberty Power and, if built out, could extract up to 40,000 acre-feet per year of brackish Salinas Valley groundwater and produce 32,000 acre-feet of clean water. For context, the Pure Water Monterey recycled water project is set up to produce 3,500 acre-feet of water per year. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, is enough water for one to two homes per year.

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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