Christopher Neely here, with water questions swirling.
There is this cliche that I think about sometimes. We’ve all heard the one about how things have to get worse before they get better, or, the sky is darkest just before dawn. Platitudes, yes, but I think many of us, in moments of reflection, can relate the idea to some eras in our lives.
On the Monterey Peninsula, the prospect of a more stable water supply is twinkling on the horizon. But before that light and stability are achieved, the people and businesses on the Peninsula will have to navigate a three-year valley of water uncertainty. How uncertain? Well, everyone I spoke with for my cover story in the current issue of the Weekly agrees that it will be up to the weather.
On Dec. 31, 2021 the state government will cut the amount of water utility California American Water can pump from the Carmel River by more than 50 percent. This means 2022 will mark the first year that modern civilization on the Peninsula will have to get most of its water from somewhere other than the Carmel River. The state told Cal Am back in 1995 that the amount of water they were pumping from the river was illegal and contributing to the decline of the Carmel River steelhead trout, and that they had to find another water resource. They and the local powers-that-be had more than a quarter-century to figure it out and prepare for this day.
Some progress around finding alternative sources of water has been made in the decades since: we have the Pure Water Monterey recycled water project, a desalination plant in Sand City and a bank of water in a Seaside aquifer. A recently agreed-upon expansion of Pure Water Monterey—recent as in Sept. 27 of this year—offers a commitment of a more stabilized water resource, but water from that project is still three years away.
After 26 years, the issue of finding enough alternative water to stabilize the Peninsula’s supply off the Carmel River has not been fully resolved in time for the Dec. 31 deadline. Water supply and demand are going to be uncomfortably close. Without good rain over the next two winters, officials see water rationing as likely, something the Peninsula has not experienced since the 1970s—a time with tales of people collecting shower water in a bucket so they could have enough water to flush their toilet.
How much water the Peninsula has and needs now, will have and will need in the future, where best to get it, who is best suited to provide it and how much customers are willing to pay are all points of contention that have bottlenecked progress. In the years leading up to 1995 and beyond, voters shot down dam and desalination plant proposals, conflicts of interest and environmental concerns busted regional projects and all along the way, Cal Am’s relationship with the public deteriorated, boiling over into a voter-approved attempt at a public takeover of the utility, a process that is ongoing.
The result: an approaching deadline without a solution in hand. For Peninsula residents and businesses this means the water situation is going to get worse before it can get better. However, unlike the implications of that timeless cliche, most people involved with local water issues say it did not have to be this way. Then again, after 26 years and no resolution, perhaps it did.