The water supply drama continues. Key urban and agriculture representatives continue to hammer away at a mutually beneficial agreement for using industrial wastewater. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District continues slowly to fortify a backup plan for a desal source if Cal Am falters. It is working with Deep Water Desal on a plan for desalted ocean water at Moss Landing.
Then there is Cal Am’s desal proposal, using slant wells north of Marina. This project is supported by the Mayors Water Authority, most elected officials, and about 16 other interested parties in a settlement agreement that was filed about 18 months ago with the California Public Utilities Commission. I am one of those parties, but I have always been baffled by Cal Am’s insistence on proceeding with slant wells, inland wells drilled on an angle to take in seawater for desalting. Though the technology is intended to minimize the intake of sea life, it is a novel and risky approach with high costs. Why is Cal Am taking this approach? What strengthens Cal Am’s resolve? There are several angles to the issue:
- Slant wells for potable desal are not operational anywhere in the United States. Cal Am claimed in a recent report that they are in use in Europe, but it has failed identify any. There is one extensive test site in Orange County with 14 years of effort and test data, but it is not operational.
- Cal Am has no new water rights anywhere along our coast, and has not applied for any. However it continues to collect data in the Marina area to bolster its plan for slant wells.
- It appears that Cal Am will use the data and the local water-supply crisis to justify an argument for a “physical solution” (the idea that practical considerations might bypass existing law). However the state Supreme Court disavowed the physical solution argument in a 2000 decision. Will Cal Am challenge that decision and add litigation costs and delay, thus avoiding the need for obtaining water rights?
- The environmental impact report for the failed regional desal project praised slant wells as the “environmentally superior alternative.” Thus slant wells give Cal Am the imprimatur of protecting the environment.
- However there are no state requirements for subsurface intakes (slant wells). Granted two very important state agencies – the State Water Resources Control Board and the Coastal Commission – have expressed preference for slant wells as an environmentally superior option, if feasible. There are not extensive criteria for determining “feasibility,” however. There needs to be some practical limit on the cost and amount of time spent on evaluating feasibility. This is a discretionary and subjective determination. So far, we have left it in the hands of Cal Am.
- Cal Am has built momentum for slant wells to the point that continued investment will be proposed so as to not waste the prior investment. This is a slippery slope.
- The city of Santa Cruz studied and rejected slant wells as too complicated and too costly.
- Cal Am ratepayers have paid the full bill for stranded costs from prior Cal Am failures—totaling about $32 million so far, and with another $20 million on the line in legal proceedings ($15 million to $18 million is at stake in litigation with Marina Coast Water District and $3.4 million is at stake in litigation with Monterey County. Ratepayers will be outraged if another failure leads to more stranded costs on our bills. So far the bill for slant wells is probably under $10 million.
- The mayors have stated that “failure is not an option” on the desalination front. Is this failure of Cal Am, or failure to obtain a new water supply? These two are not linked, or are they?
So why is Cal Am so determined to go the extra mile for slant wells? The answer is “tuck ins.”
Call Public Water Now paranoid, but we see a connection between this project and the defeat of Measure O, which was meant to lead to public ownership of Cal Am’s local operations. Cal Am spent an enormous amount of money to campaign against the measure — about $2.3 million — to protect its local interest. It proved the point that Public Water Now has been making, that the Monterey Peninsula is a cash cow for Cal Am and its parent company, American Water Works.
Public Water Now recently connected the dots with language from Cal Am’s corporate holding company, American Water Works. Its 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission for 2013 describes the corporate growth strategy to be “tuck ins.”
“Growth of service providers in the investor-owned regulated utility sector is achieved through organic growth within a franchise area, the provision of bulk water services to other community water systems and/or acquisitions, including small water and wastewater systems, typically serving fewer than 10,000 customers that are in close geographic proximity to already established regulated operations, which we herein refer to as “tuck ins.”
—American Water Works 10-K filing with SEC for 2013, page 4.
This national corporate growth policy called “tuck ins,” further documented in other SEC filings, is intended to establish water supply ownership/control/dominance in smaller communities as a prelude to serving the growth potential of that community. PWN contends that Cal Am is overly exuberant for slant wells for one dominant reason: it gives Cal Am a permanent foothold next door to Fort Ord, the Peninsula’s only site of predictable growth in the future.
Now it seems clear why Cal Am is so determined to capture the CEMEX site for slant wells. It is using the fragile justification for slant wells to establish itself in the Fort Ord service area. And do not think its legal battle over the $15 million to $18 million debt of Marina Coast Water District is not playing into this calculus.
This national corporate policy to use “tuck ins” for growth should be a concern to Marina, other Fort Ord interests, and the wider community. It sure will be to ratepayers.
Riley is the managing director of Public Water Now and a longtime advocate for public ownership of water utilities.