Sara Rubin here, getting ready for the Oscar-worthy government TV about to happen tonight. OK, you got me—government TV is not winning any Oscars, but for water wonks, water customers (that would be all of us) or those who want to see how the sausage is made (that should be all of us), tonight is going to be a multi-channel multi-agency viewing frenzy. And unlike the Oscars, you can also call in and give your own comments.
First, here’s the big picture. California American Water, the privately owned utility that provides water to roughly 40,000 households and businesses on the Monterey Peninsula, is facing existential questions about its future here. In one realm, Cal Am continues advocating for a desalination plant, despite a long list of agencies and leaders staunchly opposed. More broadly, as a result of Measure J—passed by voters in 2018—the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District is pursuing a public buyout of Cal Am. The utility’s refrain for years has been, “we are not for sale,” which means the water district would have to pursue eminent domain to take over Cal Am.
Somewhere in between those two issues there is the reality that the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply has to change—a cease-and-desist order issued by state regulators requires that we find a new water supply by Dec. 31, 2021, due to illegal overpumping of the Carmel River. How we get there and who gets us there is the complicated stuff in the middle of that story, and two different agencies weigh in tonight.
First, on the matter of desalination: There’s not a vote on a desal plant tonight, but there is a vote on expanding an existing water recycling project, called Pure Water Monterey. At 6pm, the board of Monterey One Water, our regional sewer agency, will meet and vote on whether to certify a supplemental environmental impact report for the expansion of Pure Water Monterey. They are pretty likely to do that. If approved, it means more water from a source that’s not the Carmel River—and potentially no need for a desalination plant, or at a deferred need for a desalination plant. (Certifying the SEIR tonight is not the same thing as building the project—that will rely on a water purchase agreement with Cal Am to ensure the $38 million project could get financed and built, so there’s still opportunity for a future showdown on this front.)
Also tonight, the board of the Local Agency Formation Commission meets (they began at 4pm). They discuss a lot of matters that are incredibly technical but important, including annexations—and the LAFCO board is a crucial yes vote in Monterey Peninsula Water Management District’s quest to buy out Cal Am, which would also entail the district annexing 58 parcels into its service area.
Tonight is LAFCO’s first discussion of the matter, with a recommendation to revisit the subject on May 24 because it’s going to be a dense batch of questions and answers before the board is ready to vote. Tonight’s discussion is likely to focus on pretty technical but important questions—such as a footnote that MPWMD has not determined whether its takeover would or wouldn’t include a hypothetical future desal plant. "We can't pay for something that doesn't exist,” water district General Manager Dave Stoldt tells me.
Alvin Edwards, chair of the board of Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, will be watching tonight’s LAFCO meeting to get a sense of where their board is leaning—and how much information they want.
“I’ll be listening to see where the LAFCO board is going, which direction the wind is blowing,” Edwards says. Some of that will be revealed by how much information LAFCO demands, versus allowing MPWMD to hold its cards close to the vest, and not wanting to reveal its strategy to rival Cal Am. “We're going to do the best we can, without jeopardizing our future legal proceedings,” Stoldt says.
There’s been a conspicuous shift in the politics of local water agencies. The makeup of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District board is different, and heavily pro-public water—Edwards was elected in 2018, at the same time Measure J passed, four years after a similar measure failed—and the appointed board of Monterey One Water is also different, signaled by the fact that they’re even considering this Pure Water Monterey expansion at all. But tonight will be our first chance to see what the vibe is at LAFCO, and a lot is riding on that vibe.