Crisis Balance

Local water officials have asked state water officials to amend a cease-and-desist order to allow more Carmel River pumping; an answer from the state could take months.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District has made an unprecedented request to the state’s water board: amend a restrictive cease-and-desist order and allow more water to be drawn from the Carmel River. Do it, they said, in the name of affordable housing.

Housing advocates have come out in support of the water district’s proposal to the State Water Resources Control Board, which would allow California American Water to take an additional 75 acre-feet – about 24.4 million gallons – from the Carmel River to facilitate affordable housing projects in the region. The additional water would be allowed but not drawn until the projects come online, which could take years. However, Cal Am and the Sierra Club say it’s a bad idea with worse timing.

The cease-and-desist order, issued by the state water board in 2009, restricts how much water Cal Am draws from the Carmel River – the main water source for the Monterey Peninsula. Condition 2 of the order prohibits the utility to draw additional water for new hookups or increased use at a property due a zoning change, such as a single-family home property rezoned as multi-family. Dave Stoldt, general manager for the MPWMD, the agency that facilitates water rights in the region, says this thwarts growth in an area that needs more housing.

The MPWMD and housing advocates say in order to balance the area’s affordable housing crisis with its water crisis, they want relief from Condition 2 and an additional 75 acre-feet of river water for affordable housing projects. It’s the first official attempt to amend the order’s water limits.

“We, the water district, don’t want to be blamed for why we cannot get affordable housing,” Stoldt says. “Housing is now clearly defined as a health and safety issue. The [cease-and-desist order] can be amended if it’s in the name of health of safety.”

The Peninsula is straining to figure out its water source of the future. One potential solution, an expansion of the Pure Water Monterey sewage recycling project, has made recent progress. Another solution, Cal Am’s proposed desalination plant, sits in regulatory limbo. Cal Am is legally allowed to draw 7,310 acre-feet annually from the Carmel River but Stoldt estimates it draws several hundred less than that, thanks to conservation efforts. Under the state’s order, if a new water source is not in place by Dec. 31, 2021, the annual allowance will drop by more than 50 percent, to 3,376 acre-feet.

A new water source is still some years away. Cal Am does not want to allocate more water to the Peninsula’s portfolio with the cease-and-desist deadline looming and no replacement water supply locked in.

“The next few years, before we have a significant water project online, are going to be a challenge,” Catherine Stedman, a Cal Am spokesperson, writes via email. “Our concern is really avoiding a potentially harmful situation for our customers. The focus needs to be on solving the problem, not creating a wider gap between available water supplies and water demand.”

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