What is at stake is the water supply for the Monterey Peninsula. Consuming water drawn from the Carmel River is no longer feasible, neither ecologically nor legally. But the power to decide on an alternative supply is largely vested in the hands of public officials from outside the region.

After years of analysis and debate, the California Public Utilities Commission, which is located in San Francisco, ruled in September that the best way forward was for California American Water to construct a $329 million desalination plant on the Peninsula.

A coalition of local water activists and elected officials opposed that plan, saying it was ill-conceived and inferior to other options. As Cal Am moved to secure various local permits, the opponents have engaged in public hearings and thrown up as many hurdles as they could.

The next few days will see two critical votes, and either could postpone or even stop the desalination plant from being built and bolster the prospect of the leading alternate proposal – to wean off of the Carmel River by expanding the region’s recycled water program.

To a large extent in both cases, the decision will hinge on whether to defer to local representatives, who may be skeptical of the desal plan, or to override them.

The first hearing, on July 11 in San Luis Obispo, pits the city of Marina against the executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

In March, Marina’s Planning Commission denied Cal Am’s application for a permit to build a water intake system on the city’s shores. Cal Am appealed the decision to the Coastal Commission, but Marina says the company had forfeited its right to do so when it pulled out of the city’s internal appeal process a day before City Council was set to hear the matter.

John Ainsworth, the Coastal Commission’s executive director, weighed in saying that Marina was misinterpreting state law and commission rules. Deborah Mall, assistant city attorney for Marina, responded with a letter on June 11, questioning the impartiality of commission staff and demanding a dispute resolution hearing.

At that hearing, members of the Coastal Commission will focus on the procedural issue and determine whether Marina’s denial is appealable by Cal Am or by other interested parties. If they rule that it is, another hearing will likely take place in November.

Of equal consequence is a special meeting of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors scheduled for July 15. It’s a vote on an appeal of a county Planning Commission decision. In April, the four commissioners representing the districts that correspond to Cal Am’s service area voted to reject the company’s request for a permit to build its desal plant on unincorporated county land. The six commissioners from elsewhere in Monterey County voted to grant Cal Am’s permit.

One of the appeals was from the citizens’ group Public Water Now, whose director, Melodie Chrislock, has been lobbying supervisors over the past few weeks. She believes the two supervisors representing the Peninsula – Mary Adams and Jane Parker – will vote with her (and their appointed planning commissioners). “It’s amazing how hard it is to stop Cal Am,” Chrislock says.

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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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