Water for Monterey County Coalition wants to stop studying, start acting.

Salt Free: Cal Am Senior Project Manager Peter Shen explains the workings of the company’s desalination pilot plant, located on site with the Moss Landing power plant. The pilot is analyzing water quality for final design of a full-scale, 11-million-gallon per day facility.

W ater continued to be something to fight over, not drink, at a recent Water for Monterey County Coalition meeting. (Unfortunately, no whiskey was offered.)

The group has met monthly for the past two years. During that time it developed a regional solution to the area’s water woes– including recycled water, Salinas Basin ground water, water from the Salinas River diversion program, a regional seawater desalination facility, on-going water conservation and other recommendations.

The regional water project is being considered as an alternative to California American Water’s Coastal Water project– which centers on a planned Moss Landing desal facility– and will be evaluated in the Coastal Water project’s draft environmental impact report, slated for release Jan. 30.

“[THE REGIONAL PLANT] IS THE POSTER CHILD OF ALL WATER PROJECTS.”

Many at the Water for Monterey County Coalition meeting say the regional plan is the better alternative. It’s more environmentally sound because it doesn’t suck sea creatures into the system or discharge highly concentrated brine back into the ocean. They also say it will cost taxpayers less than Cal Am’s Moss Landing proposal because it will require less desalinating equipment and pipelines.

The coalition’s feisty leader, Steve Kasower, a senior research economist at UC-Santa Cruz’s Center for Integrated Water Research, wants to see dirt move on the regional plan– and see implementation begin yesterday, if not earlier. He’s using his seat at the bully pulpit to put “political pressure on California American Water Company [and other government agencies] to step up,” sign a financing agreement and support the regional plan.

“There is no reason to continue to meet unless we are ready to build it,’’ he says. “That’s where we are at.

“Cal Am has said, ‘We would be willing to buy water [and not own the operating system],’ so now we need that willingness on a piece of paper.”

Cal Am General Manager Craig Anthony responds: “We’re waiting for the draft EIR to come out at the end of January. If it says [the preferred alternative] is the regional project, great, because we don’t care who owns it. We’d like to operate it. We don’t see any reason to write any new documents until the draft EIR comes out.”

The wait is nearly over. At the end of this week, the California Public Utilities Commission will release the draft EIR. It’s expected to consider three primary water projects: Cal Am’s Moss Landing desal facility, an alternative desal plan for a north Marina site and the regional project.

Cal Am’s preferred project, the Coastal Water Project, would supply 11,730 acre-feet of potable water per year to the company’s Peninsula ratepayers primarily through a desalination plant next to the Moss Landing Power Plant. Many environmentalists don’t like this proposed solution because the desal operation would use the power plant’s once-through cooling system.

Once-through cooling draws ocean water through industrial intakes– and kills fish and other marine organisms in the process. For that reason, both the state and the feds appear to be moving toward eliminating once-through cooling at power plants. Some environmentalists say there’s no way that the state will issue Cal Am the necessary permits to build a plant that relies on the embattled technology– let alone produce a long-term water supply for the Monterey Peninsula.

An alternative Cal Am desal plan for a north Marina site wouldn’t use once-through cooling, but instead would extract water from beach wells through a pipeline beneath the ocean floor. This system uses the sand on the floor of the ocean as a natural filter to keep seaweed, fish and fish larvae from being sucked into the pumping system. For this reason, beach wells, or other subsurface intake systems, are generally considered the environmentally superior technology.

Like the so-called North Marina alternative, the regional proposal would extract seawater from beach wells at smaller desal facilities including one in Marina. It would also use other components– aquifer storage and recovery in the Seaside Basin, recycled water, reprogrammed use of the Salinas Basin ground water, water from the Salinas River diversion project and storm water recovery and conservation. But unlike Cal Am’s proposals, which would produce water for the company’s Peninsula service area, the regional project would produce potable and agricultural water for the entire region– up to 26,500 acre-feet per year for the Cal Am service area (Carmel, Del Rey Oaks, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Sand City, Seaside and the unincorporated areas of Pebble Beach, Carmel Valley and the Monterey-Salinas Highway Corridor) along with Marina, the former Fort Ord, Salinas, and north Monterey County. All of the local cities (except for Sand City) have endorsed the regional plan.

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“What’s beautiful about the regional plan,” says Jim Heitzman, general manager of the Marina Coast Water District, “is that it has several spokes to the water wheel: ground water and recycled water. A number of engineering consulting firms, both state and national, have told me that it’s the poster child of all water projects.”

Heitzman says he’s confident the CPUC will select the regional plan as the best project for the environment. He says it’s also the best project for taxpayers. “It’s environmentally superior, it’s cost effective, it benefits citizens and it serves the regional need.”

Cal Am officials won’t comment on claims that the regional project will cost less and be better for the environment than the Moss Landing desal proposal.

“It would be premature to give you any response… We haven’t seen the document [draft EIR] yet,” says David Berger, Cal Am’s coastal water supply projects manager. Before selecting a water-supply project, the CPUC will analyze each proposal’s cost to taxpayers– in addition to the environmental impacts, Berger adds.

“It’s not so much our role to advocate for any one alternative as it is to put our faith in the process and hope it comes out with the project that will be the most environmentally sensitive, acceptable to the community, acceptable to our ratepayers and permitable to the various regulatory agencies,” spokeswoman Catherine Bowie says.

Bring on the whiskey.

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