Water Wars

Melodie Chrislock of Public Water Now wants to see an expanded recycled water supply, which is cheaper than desalinated water.

When you turn on a faucet on the Monterey Peninsula, you’re consuming water that’s been illegally pumped from Carmel River. Now, after more than two decades of this, scores of public officials, utility executives and citizen advocates are working – and sometimes fighting – to replace the region’s water supply before state-mandated sanctions kick in.

California American Water is forging ahead with its plan: a desalination plant near Marina.

But operating a desal plant is energy intensive and the construction itself will cost about $329 million. Spread across Cal Am’s local customer base of 40,000, that sum averages $8,225 per ratepayer, an expense that would be collected over the course of a few years.

Cal Am says the desal plant is the best way to meet a cease and desist order imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board to stop overdrawing Carmel River water, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2021. “The president of Cal Am could go to jail for failure to obey the cease and desist order,” spokesperson Catherine Steadman says.

Pressure on the utility is mounting from another direction, as well. In November, voters initiated a public buyout of the Cal Am system, pending a finding of feasibility by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.

Cal Am says it will resist a buyout. The company could be forced to sell through eminent domain, a process that would take years. Public buyout advocates are accusing Cal Am of pushing for desal as part of a strategy to inflate its valuation, potentially making a public buyout infeasible.

Cal Am must break ground on the desal plant by the end of September in order to meet the first of several state water board milestones. But factors beyond Cal Am’s control could derail its timeline. The focus now is on securing a development permit needed for the desal plant. The Marina Planning Commission denied Cal Am’s permit request, and Cal Am appealed to Marina City Council. The council is expected to hear the appeal as soon as April 23. Cal Am expects another denial and a subsequent appeal to the California Coastal Commission.

Meanwhile, in March, two public water agencies approved spending $1 million to begin expanding the region’s recycled water program, Pure Water Monterey.

Building infrastructure for recycled water is a critical stopgap in the case of no desal plant, according to Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. “The idea here was to leapfrog ahead and begin the environmental review so that we are not putting off a year’s worth of work,” he says. “We are in the water planning business. We like having a backup.”

But if public water advocates like Melodie Chrislock have their way, recycled water will not be a backup. Recycled water could replace desal, she says. Her group, Public Water Now, plans to address the California Coastal Commission during a meeting in Salinas on April 10-11, past theWeekly’s deadline, urging commissioners to reject Cal Am’s permit appeal when it comes up for a vote.

“None of the water problems we have are technical,” says Martin Feeney, a hydrogeology consultant. “They are all political. There’s enough water in Monterey County to go around.”

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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