The Monterey County Board of Supervisors’ 3-to-2 decision approving the Harper Canyon project is irresponsible. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that we do NOT have the water NOR do we have the traffic capacity on Highway 68 to support this development. Dave Potter and Jane Parker, the supervisors who voted against this project, made these points very clearly during the discussion before the vote. The staff report recommending approval of the project was truly egregious, because it ignores the most important information from the environmental analysis and makes false arguments that are not supported by the facts.
The final EIR makes clear (based on the most recent and definitive study of the water basin) that the Corral de Tierra sub-basin is in serious overdraft, with groundwater levels declining over a foot per year for decades to come. That study projects that groundwater levels will continue to decline as more building permits for existing lots of record are issued, harming existing well owners who will have to drill deeper wells to reach the water. Contrary to the county’s findings, the Geosyntec study does not identify any benefit to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin from the Salinas Valley Water Project (SVWP).
This last point is critical. The approving supervisors said that because the SVWP will solve all the Salinas Valley Basin’s problems, this subdivision should be approved. It was the same argument used for approving the Ferrini Ranch subdivision. The truth is, the SVWP was never intended to solve all the basin’s problems but rather help slow saltwater intrusion into the basin. Saltwater intrusion is still marching south towards Salinas. Relying on the SVWP is absurd and frankly dishonest.
All of the recent studies (Geoscience 2013, Brown and Caldwell 2015), the Monterey County Water Resources Agency staff, and the county’s own findings in the Ferrini Ranch project establish that the Salinas Valley Water Project will not restore groundwater elevations in the valley and that additional groundwater management projects are required. The necessary projects have not been environmentally reviewed, approved, or funded. None of this is disclosed in the Harper Canyon EIR or the county’s findings for the Harper Canyon project. It is unreasonable and contrary to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to claim that the landowner’s payments toward an ineffective project is sufficient mitigation. Despite this, the final EIR claims that the Harper Canyon project will not aggravate cumulative impacts to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin, citing the Salinas Valley Water Project panacea.
Even if the SVWP were effective in restoring groundwater levels in the adjacent Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, neither the EIR nor any other substantive evidence in the record explains how the SVWP could restore groundwater levels in the up-gradient Corral de Tierra sub-basin. The only expert hydrological testimony in the record on this point explains that the Corral de Tierra sub-basin groundwater flows down into the Pressure Sub-basin, so it is a source of recharge to the Valley, not a potential beneficiary of Valley groundwater flows.
The supervisors also apparently relied on a 72-hour pumping capacity test to conclude that there is a long-term sustainable water supply. This test established only that the project wells are currently able to pump water. The test cannot establish any conclusion about long-term cumulative impacts to the Corral de Tierra sub-basin, and in fact it revealed that groundwater levels have declined 20 feet at the project site in the last 15 years.
Even though the environmental analysis was incomplete and misleading, it is still quite clear that we do not have the water for this project. As the Planning Commission correctly determined, approval of the Harper Canyon project is inconsistent with the 1982 general plan policies that call for protecting a sustainable water supply for all users.
The EIR admits that the project will cause significant and unavoidable impacts to five of the eight Highway 68 intersections and segments analyzed under 2015 conditions. LandWatch’s comments pointed out that this violates the 1982 general plan policies banning approval of projects without adequate traffic facilities. At the final hearing, after the close of public comment, a Public Works staff member claimed that the payment of impact fees to address other traffic impacts would somehow ensure general plan consistency, despite these admitted unavoidable and significant impacts. We cannot understand how the county can find a project consistent with its general plan traffic policies, which bar approval of projects where there is insufficient traffic capacity, at the same time that its CEQA document admits unavoidably significant traffic impacts due to lack of traffic capacity. Both the Ferrini findings and the draft Harper Canyon findings finesse this issue by simply omitting any findings about general plan traffic policies.
Furthermore, the EIR’s admission of the scope of traffic impacts is incomplete. The EIR relies on illusory mitigation and thus fails to disclose that the project will in fact cause significant and unavoidable impacts to all eight of the Highway 68 intersections and segments evaluated under both 2015 conditions and 2030 conditions. The EIR concludes that payment of TAMC impact fees toward the Highway 68 Commuter Improvements project will somehow mitigate year 2015 impacts to three intersections and segments; however, the Highway 68 Commuter Improvements project is not funded and not scheduled before 2035. The EIR also concludes that payment of impact fees will mitigate all year 2030 impacts to the Highway 68 intersections and segments. However, as the Harper Canyon EIR admits, and as the 2010 general plan EIR and TAMC have both concluded, the necessary improvements to Highway 68 to restore adequate service are simply not feasible financially. The contention that future impact fees will somehow mitigate a traffic problem that the county admits cannot be solved violates CEQA and strains credulity.
Indeed, the traffic impact story became even more absurd at the final hearing. In response to LandWatch’s comments that the CEQA analysis was invalid because it rested on illusory mitigation, Public Works staff told the supervisors that the EIR does admit that cumulative traffic impacts are significant and unavoidable, citing pages from the draft EIR. What staff did not explain was that this admission was stricken from the revised draft EIR and the final EIR, which both claimed that all 2030 traffic impacts would be adequately mitigated. This revised conclusion that all 2030 traffic impacts would be mitigated by impact fees, even while admitting that the needed improvements are not actually feasible, was identical to the conclusion in the Ferrini Ranch EIR, which used the same traffic consultants. Either Public Works did not get the revised conclusion, or they did not believe it.
In conclusion, the mistakes and misinterpretations of the environmental review for this project violate the California Environmental Quality Act. Successful litigation can force county government to redo the environmental analysis so that it is honest, complete and complies with the full public process required by the law. CEQA is based on the assumption that a full and honest review of environmental impacts, which are open to a full public process, will encourage elected officials to act responsibly. The track record of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors does not bode well for responsible land-use decisions. But the Supervisors may very well get the opportunity to vote again on this project after the courts force them to redo the environmental review. We hope that the electorate encourages those members of the Board who voted for this project the first time to vote more responsibly the next time round.
Amy L. White is executive director of LandWatch Monterey County.