Water supply alternatives jockey for attention as Cal Am cold-shoulders Regional Project

Nader Agua: Developer Nader Agha says a regional desalination plant on his 200-acre Moss Landing Commercial Park could provide water for about $30 per month. “The ratepayers will be winners, winners, winners,” he says.

Like the quotable line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – in a saga that has become almost as ridiculous – the Regional Desalination Project is “not dead yet.” But California American Water may be giving it the equivalent of a thunk to the head as it shifts its focus to water supply alternatives for the Monterey Peninsula.


To that end, Cal Am has released an analysis by RBF Consulting examining 10 alternatives to the Regional Project. “We wanted to confirm, given everything that’s at stake, that we were on the best path,” company spokeswoman Catherine Bowie says. 


She won’t comment on whether Cal Am is ready to scrap the Regional Project, as the project partners are in mediation over a number of disputes. And she’s not sure whether changing course would force a new approval process with the California Public Utilities Commission: “I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question right now.”


What’s clear is that water supply alternatives have regained a gravitas they lost with the 2010 unveiling of the Regional Project. This month alone, nearly a half-dozen public events consider other strategies for beating the state-imposed five-year deadline for Cal Am to replace the Carmel River as the Monterey Peninsula’s primary water source.


The highest profile event is an Oct. 26 public forum, hosted on behalf of six Peninsula cities, looking at an array of proposed solutions. Notably, two of the three Regional Project partners – Marina Coast Water District and Monterey County Water Resources Agency – are not on the agenda. Instead, Cal Am will share the floor with Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, two agencies that have been shut out of the Regional Project.


Several of the alternatives on the table could involve a partnership between the MPWMD and MRWPCA. The Peninsula water district has been exploring the potential for a small desalination plant in Monterey, expanded aquifer storage and wastewater recycling, among other measures.


Also in the lineup: Deepwater Desal, a private proposal to draw from the Monterey Submarine Canyon in Moss Landing; and The People’s Moss Landing Water Desal Project, led by developer Nader Agha.


“There is so much misinformation trying to distract attention and mislead the public to save the [Regional] Project,” Agha says. He’s working to revive a proposal to build a large desalination plant on his commercial park in Moss Landing, where existing infrastructure could defray some of the capital costs. By his calculation, the People’s Project would cost one-third of the $400 million Regional Project’s price tag. 


One hitch: Agha hasn’t found a public agency to partner on the project, as county law requires. “If everything else fails,” he says, “we will form our own public agency and sell the water for a very reduced price.”


With the Regional Project faltering on several fronts – financing glitches, a conflict-of-interest scandal and a lawsuit challenging water rights – the Monterey County Hospitality Association is hoping to revive public enthusiasm for it. An Oct. 20 presentation, “Why We All Loved It,” will feature Steve Kasower, an economist and consultant who helped build consensus on the Regional Project.


“This project seems to be viewed through the lens of misbehaviors,” he says. “The county needs to get out of the way and let us move forward.”

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