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We need more water in order to build more housing. But sometimes, the lack of water is a convenient excuse not to build.

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We need more water in order to build more housing. But sometimes, the lack of water is a convenient excuse not to build.

David Schmalz here, thinking about the Seaside Basin, which, along with the Carmel River and recycled water from Pure Water Monterey, is one of three major water sources serving residents in the Monterey Peninsula. 

Water is a highly complex topic on the Peninsula and in the county at large, and what follows is no exception. Still, it’s important: water facilitates life, and its availability, or lack thereof, changes the world we live in. It’s one fundamental reason we can, or cannot, build much-needed housing. 

I’m thinking about the Seaside Basin for this reason: recent decisions made by the Seaside City Council, as it relates to that water supply, will have an impact on housing in the city in a major way. 

Most recently, on July 7, City Council voted unanimously to approve a reimbursement agreement with Cruachan Capital, a company that specializes in building apartments, to build a pipeline from the Seaside Municipal Water System—a small, city-owned water district serving about 750 homes, the fire department, two churches and two apartment complexes—to serve the nascent Ascent project, a 106-unit apartment and retail build on the corner of Broadway Avenue and Terrace Street. Seaside City Council approved the residential project in 2019, and it will include 16 affordable units. 

The project has sat dormant since its 2019 approval because, even though it had water credits, Cal Am refused to upsize the water meter to serve it—a step approved by the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District—out of fear it would violate the cease and desist order Cal Am is under from the state due to its longtime illegal overpumping of the Carmel River. 

The pipeline will ensure that Cruachan Capital, which bought the entitlements to develop the property—which is in the Cal Am service district—will have water while it makes the investment to start building, a process that is expected to begin this fall and take 18-24 months. Cruachan, understandably, wanted assurances there will be water when the project is completed. 

When a new water supply comes along—presumably via an expansion of Pure Water Monterey, which is expected to come online in 2024—the project would then be hooked up to Cal Am’s system. So the pipeline is presumed to be a temporary solution, if needed. 

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This decision stands in direct contrast to one made last November when the same City Council passed an ordinance flouting State Senate Bill 9 (which allows property owners to subdivide their properties in single-family zoned neighborhoods to allow for one more residence). When the council passed its ordinance (with Councilmember Jon Wizard dissenting) to skirt SB 9 within the Seaside Municipal Water System-served neighborhoods, it did so ostensibly because the Seaside Basin is in overdraft

Concerns about the overdraft of the Seaside Basin are not without warrant—while the 2021 Seaside Basin Watermaster report, released in January, noted that the basin “is not critically overdrafted” at the time being, it also notes: “There continue to be ongoing detrimental groundwater conditions within the basin that pose a potential threat of seawater intrusion,” and that, “groundwater levels below sea level, the cumulative effect of pumping in excess of recharge and freshwater inflows, and ongoing seawater intrusion in the nearby Salinas Valley all suggest that seawater intrusion has the potential to occur in the [Seaside Basin].”

But the message from these contrasting decisions is clear: The Seaside City Council is not so much opposed to overdrafting the Seaside Basin as it is to opposing subdividing the city’s single-family zoned neighborhoods.

Seaside Mayor Ian Oglesby essentially said as much in November: “My thing is not about the water. It’s about the quality of life for those residents [impacted by new homes].”

It will be interesting to see how things play out in the city when a new water supply comes online in two years that will presumably lead the state to lift the cease and desist order against Cal Am, which would in turn allow SB 9 to take effect in all Seaside neighborhoods not served by Seaside Muni. 

Will Seaside City Council then follow the state’s directive to help address our escalating housing crisis? Or will it find another way to flout it?

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