M.C. NOW - Sara Rubin

Don’t throw the baby out with the water supply. 

Good afternoon. 

I had just finished writing about how tomorrow, Thursday, Sept. 17 was going to be a doozy of a public meeting. After years of delay including alliances and broken alliances, lawsuits and battles waged the old-fashioned way at the podium, California American Water was finally scheduled to go before the California Coastal Commission at 9am to make its case for approving a crucial permit to build a desalination plant in Marina. Staff to the Coastal Commission prepared a 154-page report with their recommendation to commissioners to say no to Cal Am. 

Then today, at the last minute, Cal Am withdrew its application. That means no meeting, no decision, more delay. Per a Sept. 16 letter from Cal Am to the Coastal Commission: “[Cal Am] plans to resubmit an application at a future date.”

Put another way, Cal Am officials expected to lose, and they don’t want to lose. 

That expectation likely comes from the staff report, which is the closest thing we’ve got to an independent third-party expert on an issue that’s highly political and in which no one trusts anyone else’s data. 

As with anything related to Cal Am—which, totally separate from the desal process is facing a potential eminent domain takeover as a result of a ballot measure—it’s been hard to parse fact from propaganda. 

Any data that comes from the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, Cal Am and supporters distrust because they say it’s skewed to support the district as it advances toward a possible public takeover. (Cal Am without desal, the thinking goes, might be affordable to a public agency; Cal Am with desal may not pencil out.) 

Data provided by Cal Am, despite their role as the water utility reliably serving the community for decades, is suspect to public water proponents because they see Cal Am as purely self-interested. 

So the Coastal Commission report, which included hiring an independent hydrogeologist, is the most independent analysis we have. Their hydrogeology determination found that Marina’s claims about potential harm to its groundwater would likely be “limited and negligible,” despite Marina’s claims to the contrary. 

But they do make a strong argument on the basis of environmental justice. The plant itself would be built in an already industrial area, adjacent to some of those other facilities. Six wells on the beach would go on the Cemex property, already a highly industrial site—likely to have some limited on beach recreational access. 

The bigger picture is that Marina is already home to the sewage treatment and recycling plant at Monterey One Water, the landfill and composting facility at Monterey Regional Waste Management District, and the Cemex sand mining plant, which is scheduled to shut down—and the staff report says it isn’t the right place for a new industrial site that would benefit other communities. (Marina is not in the Cal Am service area.)

The other major issue, on which everyone cites different data hand-picked to support their own conclusions, is whether the Monterey Peninsula actually needs desal at all. Recycling wastewater is effective—and cheaper—than desal. “Staff believes, after weighing the evidence in the record at this time, that the Pure Water [Monterey] expansion is a feasible alternative to Cal Am’s project, will allow Cal Am to cease its illegal water withdrawals from the Carmel River and meet the region’s water needs, and is the preferable, least environmentally damaging alternative,” per the staff report. 

The only undisputed fact in the report is this: “The proposed project has become extraordinarily controversial.”

The fact remains that this community needs a water supply solution. We’re under state orders to find one, because we’ve mistreated the Carmel River. And if expanding Pure Water Monterey is our future, it will require community collaboration. If desalination is our future— perhaps in a smaller form, perhaps built by a public agency if a public buyout succeeds—it will require community collaboration. 

-Sara Rubin, editor, sara@mcweekly.com

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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