For the past couple of years now, California American Water and its various partners have told us that time is of the essence, that its plans for a $400 million-plus desalination plant must proceed at all costs. The threat of a state-ordered cutback on water use looms large, especially over the hospitality industry, the Peninsula’s largest economic driver.
So when environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact of drilling giant wells under the beach, when those of a technical bent worried aloud about the integrity of the pre-construction testing process and the potential impact on groundwater near the plant site, when people concerned about the high cost of mistakes pointed out a glaring conflict of interest among the project team, they were all dismissed as obstructionists.
“They” are trying to stop the project, we were told, though “they” were never really identified. (The working definition of the so-called obsctructionists might be anyone who isn’t being paid to advance the project or doesn’t stand to receive a direct financial benefit.)
Those arguing that state environmental laws should be not be ignored for the convenience of the engineers were called tree huggers or worse, shills for potentially competing projects. Though they have found themselves in an emergency of their own making, Cal Am and its bedfellows argue that there have been too many delays already and rules are meant to be broken if it is in the interest of speed and commerce.
And now comes another significant setback for the project. Ruling Extending EIR Deadline for MPWSP Whose fault? Those damned obstructionists? Not hardly.An administrative law judge for the Public Utilities Commission ruled Thursday that the bureaucratic timetable must be set back three months because one of the key figures in the well-testing process is wearing too many hats. There are things to be sorted out, said an exasperated judge, Gary Weatherford.
Here is today’s Herald story on the ruling.
It seems that Dennis Williams of Geoscience is working for just about everyone involved in the well testing, including both Cal Am and the PUC, and he also holds a patent on the technology being tested. In other words, he was being paid by the PUC and the company preparing the environmental impact report on the project to help test Cal Am’s test wells of his design while also being paid by Cal Am. What could possibly go wrong?
So now expect to be told that this is an unnecessary delay caused by “those who would destroy the project.” But the truth is that this is the fault of those making the decisions on behalf of Cal Am and the Public Utilities Commission. This is not the handiwork of obstructionists. This is another breakdown in the procedure, a result of arrogance.
True, some of those who aren’t big fans of the project did notice the conflict and pointed it out but the powers that be on this project already knew all about it. If they say they didn’t, they will either be lying or admitting to grotesque incompetence. Google Dennis Williams and Geoscience and see how long it takes for you to spot the problem and say, “Oh, my.”
Williams is highly qualified for the work involved and it is entirely possible that he can segregate his functions properly and provide accurate assessments, at least according to his own standards. But that should have been discussed openly by the various parties – including the public – right from the start. Not now, after the media demonstrated that the PUC’s experts couldn’t even find a private well near the test site. Not now, after unexpected decline in groundwater in the area suggests the test well isn’t working as it is supposed to. Now now, after Cal Am’s customers have been put on the hook for some $10 million in testing costs, costs that will come straight out of customers’ pockets no matter how any of this turns out.
It could be that Williams was the best choice for the job and should have been hired. But doing that right would have required putting his various entanglements on the record, and you know what can happen when the public knows too much.
Weatherford’s ruling comes just a week at the Coastal Commission ruled that Cal Am needs to do some more work on its well testing program, which begs the question of whether Cal Am could have accomplished more early on by refining its testing plan rather than scratching and clawing to fast track it through the regulatory processes in the first place.
It could be that under current standards of public works construction, it isn’t possible for a project to be built without compromises of quality, design and process. Maybe there is corruption and self-dealing in every venture beyond some certain financial threshold. Maybe it’s $100 million. Maybe it’s whatever Cal Am’s budget calls for.
From Cal Am’s perspective, Tom Moore fits right into the obstructionist category. He’s on the board of the Marina Coast Water District, which once was a partner in Cal Am’s desal efforts, a partnership that fell apart spectacularly when it came out that a former county water official, Steve Collins, was being paid under the table for consulting work on the project. Now there is litigation and Monterey County and Cal Am and Moore’s district are trying to make each look bad and, for the most part, succeeding.
But Moore is also well positioned to comment on the swirl that the desal venture has become. Here’s his take.
“Given the history of the Regional Desalination Project and what happened to Steve Collins, logic would dictate that Cal Am and the CPUC would carefully vet ALL of their consultants and contractors to ensure there wouldn’t be even the slightest whiff of the appearance of a conflict of interest. And logic would also dictate that any consultant or contractor thinking about working for either the CPUC or Cal Am on the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, or both in this case, would consult with competent attorneys and disclose, disclose, disclose in order to stay the hell away from even a remote possibility of a conflict of interest. Unfortunately, it seems logic was not at work here.
“What does appear to be in abundance in this entire debacle is an appalling belief: that when it comes to making more money for your shareholders and yourself, the ends always justify the means. The withholding of critical information from customers and the public, the concealment of conflicts of interest, twisting the truth and even outright lying seem to be coin of the realm for the folks who hold this appalling belief. It’s a very unfortunate commentary about private commerce today that $20 million $30 million will buy a lot of this sort of dishonesty.”
As it stands, the process leading to a possible desalination plant has become littered with thorns. Supporters of this project feel they must barrel through it all and demonstrate certitude even though they has never built such a plant or maneuvered through such a process. They apparently feel that to stop and listen to anyone who isn’t on their desal team might be seen as a sign of weakness, so they choose to ignore all the noise from the bleachers. “They’re just trying to stop the project.”
And while that might be true for a few, many, many who have been watching and weighing in on the desal project for a decade now want only for the project to be completed as efficiently and cleanly as possible. And, just in case, they want officials to continue considering alternative projects that likely would not be as expensive or environmentally intrusive. There are many who don’t trust Cal Am and fear that special deals with the hospitality industry will leave everyone else paying exorbitant amounts for water. But they also understand that the river needs to be protected and an additional water supply is required. What they want is for Cal Am and the PUC to do a better job.
Cal Am averted a public takeover effort partly by convincing the public that it can do a better job than a public agency. Since then, the company has have presented no evidence of that. If there was generalized trust that Cal Am and its boosters were capable of getting it done on their own, and keeping costs at least somewhat under control, the noise surely would die down. But what has gone down instead is the trust level, and there may be no end in sight unless Cal Am et al change their ways.