Competing desalination projects — one public, one private — have been proposed to serve the thirsty Monterey Peninsula.

In the northern corner of the county, the private California-American Water Company, or Cal-Am, wants to build a desalination plant next to a power plant.

On the peninsula, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD) is proposing to build a similar project in Sand City. Only one of the projects is likely to be built. The state’s Public Utilities Commission favors the Moss Landing project.

Both desalination projects are designed to replace water that Cal-Am has pumped from the Carmel River. In 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board ruled that Cal-Am did not have valid rights to 70% of the water. Cal-Am was ordered to reduce its water use immediately, and a 20% water cutback has been in effect for peninsula water customers ever since.

The mandatory rationing impacts about 110,000 residents of the region, which includes the cities of Monterey, Seaside, Sand City, Del Rey Oaks, Pacific Grove and Carmel, along with nearby unincorporated areas. The area gets no water from the State Water Project.

Although Cal-Am provides water for the region, state legislation passed in 1978 created the MPWMD to manage water issues, develop additional supplies and oversee agencies that provide water. The district provides no water service, and if it builds the Sand City desalination plant, the district could turn over operations to Cal-Am, said Andy Bell, district engineer.

Cal-Am initially proposed damming the Carmel River, but environmentalists fought the plan. In 1995, 57% of district voters rejected the proposed 24,000-acre-foot New Los Padres Dam. Two years earlier, they also gave a thumbs down to a desalination plant.

Henrietta Stern, project manager with the district, said district voters turned down desalination by a close vote in 1993 because they thought they would be approving a dam soon. But 10 years later — and after years of rationing — the ballot box results could change.

In recent years, both state and local officials told Cal-Am they would not approve a dam for environmental reasons. Cal-Am announced in February the proposal to build a desalination plant at Moss Landing, which is located outside of the water district that it serves.

Under the legislation that created the MPWMD, voters get a chance to vote on water issues, according to Stern. But because Moss Landing is outside the district’s boundaries, voters will not be able to cast ballots on the project.

Further taking the project out of local control, the PUC has become the lead agency in preparing the environmental impact report for the Moss Landing project, a role that the County of Monterey had asked to handle. A PUC administrative law judge ruled in the PUC’s favor, a position supported by Cal-Am. The county has appealed that decision to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, according to Stern.

The PUC suggested the Moss Landing desalination plant after a state law passed in 1998 that required the commission to come up with alternatives to building a dam on the river. The PUC came out in favor of desalination — first suggesting the Sand City site in a draft report, then choosing Moss Landing in its final report, Stern said.

The Sand City plant would take its water from below sand near the ocean, avoiding potential harm to small sea organisms. But the PUC’s 2002 report rejected the Sand City site because of “limited seawater production capacity along the beachfront,” and because of concerns about brine disposal and getting permits for using California Parks and Recreation land.

But the Moss Landing proposal also faces obstacles. A desalination plant at Moss Landing would have a ready supply of electricity because of infrastructure located there for a recently expanded Duke Energy power plant, which is the state’s largest. The water used to cool the power plant’s engines could be used to dilute brine discharges from the desalination process.

But water pipes into a Moss Landing desalination facility would have to filter out plankton and other sea life. In addition, a pipeline would have to be built to send water to customers on the peninsula.

Neither of the desalination plants provides any water for future growth, according to Stern and Meg Catzen, project director for Cal-Am. But county officials have indicated an interest in getting more water, Catzen said. “The county hasn’t asked us for a defined amount of water,” she added.

The Sand City project would generate 8,400 acre-feet of water a year, and Moss Landing would generate 9,400 acre-feet a year.

Residents of North Monterey County have voiced opposition to the new construction in Moss Landing which, so far, is offering no benefit to them.

“In North County, we do not have a feeling or opinion that we have any local control over what’s happening to us,” said Carl Chase of Prunedale, a member of the North County Citizens Oversight Coalition.

Although the cost of desalination has decreased in recent years (see CP&DR Trends, February 2002), both plants in Monterey County are expected to cost between $150 million and $200 million to build, Stern said. By comparison, a smaller desalination plant built in Santa Barbara during the early 1990s cost $34 million.

Stern defended the Sand City project as simpler and contended it would not involve regional issues that could affect the Moss Landing plan. An EIR for the Sand City project is underway and voters could be deciding on the project in November 2004. Catzen said the initial environmental studies for Moss Landing could take more than a year to complete.

The California Coastal Commission recently released a report on desalination, noting that two dozen desalination projects are proposed along the state’s coast. It said that application of the Coastal Act to projects will differ depending on whether the project is a public or private facility.

“The Coastal Act is based on the coastal resources of California being public resources, and the consumptive use of seawater by private interests will require thorough evaluation and adequate assurances that public uses and values will be protected,” the report said.

The study said that marine life could be affected by water intake and brine discharges. But it said both can be mitigated by proper design, siting and operations.

Both of the proposed desalination sites in Monterey County are near the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and “you cannot build new outfalls or new intake pipes in the sanctuary area,” Stern said.

Henrietta Stern, project manager, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, (831) 658-5600.
Meg Catzen, project director, California-American Water Company, (831) 646-3206.
California Coastal Commission desalination report: