Thursday, November 17 is shaping up to be a momentous day for the future of the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply, as two major state boards – the California Coastal Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission – are expected to weigh in on two separate projects that aim to add supply to the local portfolio.
Arguably, the more important of the two hearings is that of the Coastal Commission, which meets for three days in the chambers of the Supervisory Board in Salinas. In these chambers on November 17, commissioners will consider whether to grant a coastal development permit to California American Water for its proposed desalination project in Marina, which has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was first proposed there. almost ten years old.
This will not be the first time the project has been presented to the commission: in November 2019, the commissioners – after agency staff recommended that they refuse a permit – made no decision, but asked its staff and Cal Am to provide additional information. They wanted to know more about a number of things, including the project’s potential impact on Marina’s groundwater, as the project is proposed to draw brackish water from sloping wells below the beach of the old Cemex factory in Marina.
The project was scheduled to go before the commission again in September 2020 — again with agency staff recommending denial — but Cal Am withdrew its application shortly before the hearing. At that time, Coastal Commission staff believed that an expansion of the Pure Water Monterey Reclaimed Water Project was a more environmentally friendly alternative to solving the region’s water supply shortage in the near future, at least.
Also on Nov. 17, the CPUC will consider approving a proposed decision for a water purchase agreement with Cal Am that would facilitate the expansion of Pure Water Monterey, which promises to provide an additional 2,250 acre-feet of water. recycled annually to the regional water supply. Cal Am has repeatedly promised to sign the deal, if approved.
This creates a conundrum: if the CPUC approves the water purchase agreement and Cal Am signs it, then the amount of water generating capacity would be more than enough to meet current demand.
Dave Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, has long spoken about his team’s calculations that show, based on water demand projections for the Monterey Peninsula from the Association of Monterey Bay Area governments, that the expansion of Pure Water Monterey could meet local water demand for 30 years. “If we’re really wrong, it’s 20 years,” Stoldt says.
The decision to approve a desalination project, he believes, is premature until it is clear when the demand for water will be there.
And as for what it would cost to build and operate the desalination project, that remains uncertain — Cal Am’s last estimate for the construction cost was just under $300 million in 2017. have changed since then.
Cal Am spokesman Josh Stratton, who responded to questions via email, wrote, “We expect to update construction and material costs in the coming months.” As to why Cal Am hasn’t given any cost updates for five years, he writes, “What would be really costly would be to delay putting in place a drought-tolerant water supply.”
Whatever the final cost, it would be passed on to taxpayers, at least in part (pending CPUC approval).
The project differs from previous Cal Am proposals in that it promises to produce up to 4.8 million gallons per day, and could then be scaled up to 6.4 million gallons per day. Cal Am’s previous proposal was to build everything right away. The larger size is what the CPUC has approved, so even if the Coast Commission approves the project in stages, it will still have to come back to the CPUC, which will also no doubt be asked to approve a higher cost for the project.
This project is also different in that this time Coast Commission staff is recommending that the Commissioners approve it. The staff report containing this recommendation acknowledges that the project “involves the most significant environmental justice concerns that the Commission has considered since adopting an environmental justice policy in 2019.”
Kathy Biala, Marina City Council member and leader of the Marina Citizens for Just Water activist group, which was formed in opposition to the project, said: “That sentence says it all. Yet, instead of refusing, they recommend approval with 20 conditions.
These 20 conditions include obtaining all necessary federal, state and local permits to proceed, which includes allowing Monterey One Water to use the agency’s outfall to disperse brine from the project. . It also includes a series of other environmental regulatory requirements associated with habitat, as well as a groundwater monitoring program.
Biala has long been concerned about the project’s impact on Marina’s groundwater, as well as the construction by a private company of wells under the beach without permission from the city.
She’s baffled that the same agency that once recommended denial is now recommending approval, while acknowledging the environmental justice issues that were a sticking point in 2020. “The material facts haven’t changed,” Biala says. “What does this say about anyone’s environmental justice policies, when the clearest example of environmental injustice is not denied?”
The Coast Commission report states that the Cal Am project “would result in the most expensive water of any desalination project the commission has recently considered.” The report notes that this would increase taxpayer bills by $47 to $50 per month for a typical single-family household.
Cal Am, in its proposal, promises to cap water bills for low-income residents for five years, a cost that Stratton says will be shared among state taxpayers, shareholders, and state and federal governments. .
“Ultimately, the CPUC sets our rates, including for costs associated with the project,” he adds.
In the current fiscal year, water from Pure Water Monterey is expected to cost about $3,500 per acre-foot. Desalinated water from the Cal Am project would cost a lot more – how much, who knows? – and if there is no demand, who pays for the unused capacity? For years, it is possible that the unused capacity represents up to 100% of the volume of the factory. In this case, who is stuck holding the bill is unclear.