Cal Am Holds Peninsula's Water Supply Hostage
By Melodie Chrislock
One thing everyone can agree on is that the Peninsula urgently needs a new water supply.
In a historic reversal last Monday night, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD) Board of Directors withdrew their support for Cal Am's proposed desal plant in favor of expanding Pure Water Monterey (PWM), the areas advanced water purification facility already in operation.
This is timely. In August, the California Coastal Commission will decide if Cal Am is allowed to build its desal plant. On June 15, the MPWMD Board sent a letter to the Coastal Commission asking them to deny Cal Am’s desal project because the PWM Expansion is a better alternative. The vote in favor of sending the letter was 4 to 3, with directors Alvin Edwards, Molly Evans, Mary Adams, and George Riley voting to send it. Gary Hoffmann, Dave Potter, and Jeanne Byrne voted against it.
Last November, the Coastal Commission staff report recommended denial of Cal Am's permit. They cited potential harm to groundwater supplies, negative environmental impacts, and environmental injustice issues. But the biggest problem for Cal Am was that the staff report concluded that the Pure Water Monterey Expansion was a feasible, well-developed alternative to desal.
Desperate to get Coastal Commission approval for its desal, Cal Am launched a campaign to sabotage and discredit the PWM Expansion. Cal Am is behind the effort to block certification of the Expansion's Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Convincing the Commission that the PWM Expansion is not a feasible alternative would make its desal the only choice.
But the Water Management District and the community are crying foul. $1 million of public money was spent on the development of the EIR. And there was no environmental reason given by the Monterey One Water (M1W) board in their decision to block its certification. This was politics driven by Cal Am and its supporters.
What motivated the M1W Board to cave to Cal Am's demands? Cal Am promised Castroville 700 acre-feet of desal water for $110 per acre-foot. But this desalinated water is extraordinarily expensive, costing $6000 to $8000 an acre-foot to produce. Who would pay the difference? Cal Am decided its Peninsula ratepayers would pay to gift this water to Castroville. This effectively pits the M1W Board's Salinas Valley agricultural interests against the Peninsula interests by a one-vote majority.
Amidst the challenges of climate change, PWM is an innovative example of the best of science and engineering in water supply planning. The Expansion would provide a drought-proof water supply.
Cal Am ratepayers and local public advocate organizations like Public Water Now and LandWatch have long supported Pure Water Monterey and its Expansion. The Expansion's estimated 30-year cost is $1 billion less than Cal Am's desal. Three independent reports have now confirmed that its 2,250 acre-feet are more than sufficient to meet the Peninsula's future needs for the next 30 years. And it can lift the Cease and Desist Order on the Carmel River in approximately 20 months, much sooner than desal.
The PWM Expansion faces only one problem. It's not profitable for Cal Am. Blocking certification of a supplemental EIR to ensure a more profitable project is troubling. The CPUC should not allow this. They should be asking why Cal Am refuses to sign a Water Purchase Agreement for this urgently needed water.
Cal Am's desal faces many problems, and now the long-ignored elephant in the room is staring us all in the face. Cal Am has no legal source water for this project. This is a groundwater desal plant with no groundwater rights.
All these years of delay on a new water supply spotlight the problem of a private utility driven by its bottom line and shareholder return. Cal Am is using its money and political power to defeat the public interest. And it's using local politics to override good science in the project permitting process.
The community clearly wants the Pure Water Monterey Expansion. But Cal Am is holding this new water supply hostage.
This article was first published in the Monterey Herald June 20, 2020.