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Monterey Peninsula faces tough choices to meet water deadlines and needs

Larry Sokoloff on
Oct 15, 2014

From many vantage points, the Monterey Peninsula looks idyllic. But it's always been a mess when it comes to water politics.

Throw in a long stalemate on solutions among the stakeholders, along with a disliked private water utility, administrative and judicial orders to cut back existing water supplies, no connections to state water and a drought and it's hard to see a clear path out of this morass.

Local leaders say they've come up with three possible solutions in the past year: building a large desalination plant, increasing use of recycled wastewater, and using winter overflows from the Carmel River to recharge the nearby Seaside Basin. Still, they've got some tight deadlines to meet in order to escape a dire future with less water. And the desalination plant, arguably the most difficult piece of the puzzle, is the key, as it will produce six times as much water as recapturing winter overflows from the Carmel River.

Desalination could be a panacea for the approximately 110,000 residents of the region, which includes Monterey, Carmel, and Seaside, along with unincorporated areas like Pebble Beach and the Carmel Valley. But other than a few small projects, little progress has been made in  the past decade. A proposed $400 million regional saltwater desalination project near Marina (north of the Peninsula), to be run by the local water utility, would offset proposed cutbacks in other water supplies. But it won't be built for at least five years.

Already a Sword of Damocles hangs over the region's head, with water cutbacks set to occur between 2015 and 2017.

The newest entrant into the race to find a solution was the 2012 formation of a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) by the six cities on the Monterey Peninsula, called the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority.

"The challenge has been that there hasn't been a consensus on what the water supply should look like," said Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett, who is on the JPA. Burnett said the consensus has been reached on the three solutions in the past year.

California American Water, or Cal-Am, the local water utility, is supposed to cut its water supply from the Carmel River by 70%, according to Henrietta Stern, a project manager with the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD). That should take place by 2017, although local officials are hoping that the state will push back that deadline if progress has been made on local projects.

At the same time, the region already has to cut back its water usage to comply with another court ruling that requires it to replenish groundwater in the Seaside basin.

In 2010, the region could count on 3,300 acre feet from that source, but has had to pump out less since then. In 2015, it will only be able to pump out 2,300 acre feet of water, and by 2021, it can only take about 1,500 acre feet of water, according to David Stoldt, general manager of the MPWMD.

While desalination looks like it could be a savior, desalination proposals in the area have come and gone in recent years. A previous desalination project fell apart in 2012. And other battles have also taken place: residents tried and failed in a June ballot measure to take over privately-owned Cal-Am.

Marina, which sits to the north of the Monterey Peninsula, has its own water supply from the Salinas River basin. That water is not available to the Monterey Peninsula. In the 1990s, Marina built its own desalination plant, designed to produce 300 acre feet of water in a year, That is only enough to provide one-third of the city's water each year. And the project is unused because energy costs were too high to run it, said Marina's Mayor Bruce Delgado.

Monterey Peninsula officials are seeking a regional facility that can serve a much larger population. But they are looking to Marina and the area nearby for a large desalination plant because the geology to the north  makes it easier to drill, Delgado explained.

The MPWMD is currently backing two desalination proposals: one by Cal-Am one mile from the city of Marina, and another  proposed by private developers in Moss Landing. The Marina  plant would produce 7,000 to 9,000 acre feet of water per year, which is slightly less than the cutbacks expected at the Carmel River by the start of 2017.

"The problem is the large desalination project won't be online by then," Stern said.

Current estimates are that the Marina project won't be done until 2019. And the 2019 date is a guess, since the city of Marina is refusing to allow Cal-Am to drill a slant well to test if the desalination project is even feasible there. The slant well would test the viability of planned beach well intakes, according to the Monterey Herald.

"Those types of delays have plagued the projects," Stern said.

Well drilling for the desalination plant is already in dispute at the Superior Court and the state level. In September, Cal-Am filed an eminent domain lawsuit to gain access to a Marina site for slant well drilling. In addition, the California Coastal Commission takes up the matter at its November 12 meeting. Burnett explained that the Coastal Commission has jurisdiction over the portion of the well that will be drilled under the Pacific Ocean.

Delgado said that while the actual desalination plant is outside the city limits, the slant wells are proposed for a site within the city of Marina.

Delgado said the Marina City Council turned down the slant well drilling on a 3-2 vote because it wanted more environmental documents produced. "The city council majority is in favor of more information before the test slant wells can be drilled," he said.

Another proposed desalination plant near Moss Landing might be built first, Stern said. It would rely on deeper water from the ocean that wouldn't have the same impacts on fish and ocean life. Unlike the Marina project, no environmental impact report has been started on the Moss Landing project.

Water politics on the Monterey Peninsula have always been complicated. MPWMD was created by state legislation in 1978 to manage water issues, develop additional supplies and oversee agencies that provide water.

In 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board ruled that Cal-Am did not have valid rights to 70% of the water it delivered to the area. Most of the water came from the Carmel River. In 2009, the state set a deadline at the start of 2017 to reduce withdrawals from the Carmel River. Stoldt said that two of the species that live in the river, the steelhead trout and the red-legged frog, are both listed as federal endangered species. The presence of both makes it difficult to build new dams on the river.

Stoldt said recycling the peninsula region's wastewater may provide an additional 3,000 to 5,000 acre feet to the local area. An EIR on the program, called Pure Water Monterey, should be done in 2015, he said, and the program may be in operation by 2017.

Official attempts to get an extension on the 2017 deadline for reducing Carmel River water can be expected in 2015.  Any extensions would come from the State Water Resources Control Board.

"The hope is to point to the program being underway and the state providing some relief," Stoldt said.

Water conservation efforts have also led to reductions in use in recent years as well, with residents saving over 1,000 acre feet of water a year, Stoldt said, and even more water conservation may be required of local residents.

She said there will be economic impacts if the region is left with water cutbacks and few new sources of water. "If there's only enough water for residents, how does a hotel, restaurant or an aquarium stay in business?"

"Over the past few decades there is likely no local issue that has been more debated, politicized voted on, and finally, as frustrating," wrote Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala, in a recent article on water. "...Desal has to be part of the mix."

Proposition 1, the state water bond measure on the November ballot, may provide some financial assistance to Monterey County if it passes. An analysis of the $7.5 billion statewide measure by MPWCD says that it includes $725 million statewide for water recycling, desalination and potable reuse.

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