A Lost Opportunity to Stand Up to Cal Am

By Bill Hood, Guest commentary 

The Herald, in its most recent editorial, said a lot — but overlooked even more. The paper has been a regular supporter of Cal Am in its “efforts” to build a desal plant that is touted as the solution to the Peninsula’s longstanding water supply problems. So it was not a surprise that the paper took water activists to task for continuing their efforts to derail Cal Am. To generously paraphrase, the paper assuredly concluded: the activists are losers (e.g., Measure O lost by 10 percent!); Cal Am is the only viable organization that can bring us the water we absolutely have to have; and we need water so, activists, back off and play in your sand box by yourselves!

Agreeing with The Herald or not, it is unfortunately true that the paper’s conclusions are lockstep with Peninsula locally elected officials and with the hospitality community (at least most of the time).

However, in writing the piece, The Herald somehow overlooked these facts:

  • Cal Am will not meet the cease-and-desist order to stop taking water for which it has no rights from the Carmel River;
  • Cal Am, for many negative reasons, has failed to meet several deadlines that it had originally imposed on itself regarding progress on the desal project;
  • Allegations have been made, some in public to the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Coastal Commission regarding possible data manipulations and water rights violations in the areas of the slant wells;
  • Serious concerns have been expressed that Cal Am is unfairly seeking rates that will provide them revenue lost because customers achieved the state’s highest level of water conservation; and
  • The Herald never mentioned costs. Oh well, I guess that doesn’t matter that the costs resulting from delays and questionable efforts of Cal Am are all potentially recoverable from their ratepayers …

How can anyone say that all is well; keep the train on the tracks, stay the course, don’t rock the boat, and those who do, step aside?

The saddest part is that the current situation did not have to happen. It wasn’t ordained in stone that we would come to this place in time with so many serious loose ends clouding the Cal Am project, with the backdrop that ratepayers ultimately may be hit where it really hurts in future years.

For me, the realization as to where all of this was going started back in 2012, when the CPUC approved a recommendation that totally disagreed with the judge who held the rate case and which ended up giving Cal Am many millions of dollars more to dismantle the San Clemente Dam. Efforts were made prior to the decision to get local politicians involved to step in and protest about the unfairness and inequity of such a possible outcome. The response was total silence (except for a few personal emails sent here and there).

Then, two years later, the mayors formed their famed water group, promising to get tough with Cal Am and ensure that the project would end up being both reliable and affordable. From the very beginning, they genuflected to Cal Am’s whims. It’s not hard to see why the mayors initially supported Cal Am — its competitors were not in a mature enough status to be seriously considered at the time. However, as Cal Am continued to move sideways, then backward, then sideways, then forward but in violation of who knows what (ethics and fraud if data were manipulated, etc.) and the competitors’ projects were gaining steam and authenticity, did the mayors take a deep breath and seriously reconsider whether their unconditional support of Cal Am should be revisited? No, they did not

To this very day, their support is like a fine old lap dog — the master can do no wrong.

But what if the mayors, from the beginning, had stated to Cal Am and their voters we will support Cal Am, but only if your actions are consistent with our specific intent to not only support you but ensure that our constituents will not end up being thrown to the dogs, rate-wise.

They had that opportunity. They refused to take it. Sometimes politics causes very good people to hang on to a decision that becomes very questionable. That has happened here.

St. Paul, in his famous colloquy on the nature of love, stated that three things remain — faith, hope and love — but the strongest is love. With respect to the Cal Am project, three things remain — the CPUC, Cal Am itself and elected Peninsula officials. Right now, the officials are the weakest, and the CPUC and Cal Am are in a heated tie for first.

Bill Hood is the former executive director of AMBAG. He resides in Carmel and Columbus, Ohio.