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Monterey Peninsula’s Expensive, Environmentally Burdensome Last Resort

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By Wes Sims | KUSP News
For our series “The Water Squeeze,” KUSP has been asking you what you want to understand better about our region’s water challenges. Several Monterey Peninsula residents wanted to hear more about what’s involved in that region’s plan to build a desalination plant. KUSP’s Wes Sims begins a three-part series explaining the peninsula’s plans for a new supply.

Image source: California Public Utilities Commission

Image source: California Public Utilities Commission

The Monterey Peninsula continues to get its water supply from the Carmel River. But the clock is ticking on a state-mandated cease-and-desist order which calls for the peninsula to stop drawing water from the Carmel River by the end of 2016. That’s because over-drafting is drying up the natural habitat of Steelhead trout.

Diagram of CalAm desalination plant in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Diagram of CalAm desalination plant in Tampa Bay, Florida. Image: Courtesy of CalAm

“The state’s conclusions were that in fact, it was being over-drafted,” says Dave Stoldt; general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management Agency, “that it was an environmental mess, the steelhead was threatened, riparian vegetation was threatened. When vegetation goes, the banks become unstable, a flood event can just wipe things out.”

Desalination – The Last Option

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management Agency, which oversees the county’s water producer, California American Water. Cal-Am is responsible for meeting the state’s Cease-and-Desist order for the Carmel River.  The only plan under consideration is one that was rejected at the polls twenty years ago… desalination.  But this time, Monterey County voters don’t get a say … except during hearings before the California Public Utilities Commission, which will ultimately decide the issue.

The PUC is receiving input from nineteen local agencies that petitioned to become part of the process, among them: the Monterey County Farm Bureau, the Marina Coast Water District, and the Peninsula Water Authority, which is made up of all six mayors on the Monterey Peninsula.  Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett is one of the key players in crafting a water solution.  Burnett admits he’s not a big fan of desalination.

“Desal should really be your last option because it has a larger environmental imprint and it’s more expensive,” Burnett says. “So I am not an advocate of desal per se.  But when you’ve exhausted all your options, it is what is left.”

Click or larger view. Image source: California Public Utilities Commission.

Click or larger view. Image source: California Public Utilities Commission.

And Burnett says desal meets the four criteria and and his fellow mayors demanded in exchange for their support.

“First of all we said project economics must be competitive,” he says. “Second we said a project must have suitable public governance, public accountability, and public transparency. Third we said a project must have a clear path towards being permitted and built as near as possible to the cease-and-desist order, and fourth we said a project must have contingency plans because failure is not an option.”

On the Water Bill

At an open-house at the CalAm office in Pacific Grove, company spokesperson Catherine Bowie admitted that if approved, desal will result in higher water bills, “… about a 40% increase from $75 to $106.”

“So 40% increase is certainly a very big increase,” Bowie says, “but we also wanted our customers to have a realistic picture of what’s going to happen because there’s been a lot of fear that bills will double or triple, and that certainly is not the case.”

Water customers Michael Waxer of Seaside and Rebecca Nicholas of P.G. seem resigned to the higher rates.

“Rates have gone up over the years,” Waxer says. “But really, our community needs a water project for our dry conditions like droughts.”

“Well, I think it sort of speaks for itself,” Nicholas says. “If we don’t have water, we don’t have life.”

Just how would Cal-Am retrieve drinking water from the ocean, while still protecting the environment? We’ll have that part of the story in our next report.

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