On April 13, Cal Am wrote a letter to the Peninsula Mayors Water Authority, responding to a letter from Public Water Now and other parties citing “alarming deficiencies” on the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project (MPWSP). The letter from Public Water now cited lack of water rights and poor science surrounding the slant well ocean intakes proposed for the Cal Am desalination plant.
The Cal Am letter was signed by desal project manager Ian Crooks. An excerpt follows:
“The most definitive and best science to determine the feasibility of slant wells is to drill and operate an actual slant well in the proposed project location and observe its performance. Cal Am’s test slant well at the CEMEX property in Marina has accomplished just that and proven unequivocally over its 480 days of pumping that slant wells are a feasible technology for our project. The important indices are yield, reliability and water quality, and results in all three areas are outstanding.” (Italics and bold added)
I wish to rebut this statement as vigorously as I can.
Traditional “scientific method” would support Mr. Crooks’ first sentence. Scientific method requires a hypothesis, and the hypothesis of this “experiment” is that a slant well can sustain a continuous extraction rate of 2,000 gallons per minute (gpm) from the proposed location without harming the groundwater. Extensive modeling by notorious hydrogeologist Dennis Williams, president of GeoSciences, was presented in the first environmental impact report iteration in 2015, and was modified by HydroFocus and Lawrence Livermore Labs in the recirculated version now pending. This extensive modeling “finds” that the hypothesis is correct and therefore that the damage to the existing surrounding coastal aquifers of the Salinas Valley River Basin is “insignificant.”
This is where a test slant well comes into play: To test the modeling work with a field test. This is also sound experimental design based on the scientific method. However, it is at this point I must diverge from Mr. Crooks and his statement highlighted in bold above. Let’s examine the “outstanding” results of the thre indices, one at a time: Reliability, yield and water quality.
The long-term pumping test began on April 22, Earth Day, 2015, which was 722 days before Mr. Crooks’ letter to the mayors. Assuming he accurately represents that the pumping had continued for 480 days as of April 13, that means the pump had been idle for 242 days, or just over 33 percent of the total time. Who in their right mind would rate a 67 percent reliability performance as outstanding? When I was going to public high school that rate of performance was known as “a D.”
CalAm has consistently made claims, widely reported in the local papers and public meetings, that the slant well yield has “exceeded expectations,” steadily drawing between 2,000 and 2,200 gallons per minute (gpm) when it is operating. But here is the problem. There is no evidence or data to support the claim within the public sphere. The current EIR presents no such information. The Hydrological Working Group (HWG), a team of hydrogeologists including Dr. Williams, monitor and measure the well’s performance as required by its permit issued by the California Coastal Commission. The HWG is required to post weekly reports on the public website www.watersupplyproject.org and submit monthly reports to the acting director of the Coastal Commission, which are also posted on the website. The monthly reports are nearly 1,000 pages, reporting minutiae gathered electronically every five-15 minutes about the groundwater and salinity levels at the monitoring wells. Yet the yield results about how many gallons of brackish water are being sucked through the slant well and tossed out to sea through the existing outfall pipe appear nowhere in any of the documentation of these lengthy reports.
As far as “yield exceeding expectations,” you will just have to take Cal Am’s word for it, and surprisingly, everyone seems to (and are damned jolly that it is going so well!) However, in my experience, I have learned to never take Cal Am’s word for anything. Except when they tell us our rates are going up. I always believe them then.
Cal Am reports about water quality are focused solely on the level of salinity of the water drawn through the slant well. The company hopes for a salinity percentage as high as possible. The higher the seawater percentage (i.e. the percent salinity of the brackish water), the lower the percentage of fresh water coming from the landward aquifers and the less water that has to be delivered to Castroville to satisfy the agency act in the “return water agreement.” The agreement is a ridiculous plan cobbled together by politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers that could cost ratepayers millions of additional dollars annually and would require an entire essay to describe its stupidity in detail.) These folks are relatively pleased that the salinity was recently measured at 92 percent seawater. However, the percolating winter deluge will likely dilute that percentage, pumping even more freshwater out to sea this spring. They predict and hope that salinity at the slant well will rise to the target level 96 percent seawater or higher once they install sevem more production slant wells, and start sucking out groundwater at over 10 million gallons per day.
You might be wondering how such a volume of pumping could be expected to have “insignificant impact” on the surrounding aquifers and so do I. It seems like magic, and I suspect magical thinking here regardless of what the extensive modeling in the EIR predicts. Fortunately, the test slant well experiment has provisions to collect data on this aspect. Monitoring wells in the area help determine what is going on in the groundwater near the slant well pump.
So, what has happened at the threshold monitoring well in the 480 days out of 722 of the long-term pumping test as of April 13, 2017? The answer is that the salinity has steadily and “very slightly” risen by over 25 percent in that time. That is an alarming number! This result is further accentuated by the fact that in the 26 days prior to the beginning of any slant well pumping (the only baseline there is at the site) the salinity at the threshold well actually dropped by 2.2 percent.
Rising salinity at this spot indicates significant rising seawater intrusion into the basin. Mr. Williams and the HWG claim that these results are unrelated to the impact of a single test slant well operating only 67 percent of the time. They say it is for other reasons, but they do not quantify nor verify those claims with data.
The science is poor because the scientists have a predetermined outcome that goes beyond normal bias. But what can you expect when you are examining science reports from Cal Am and its Crooks?
Michael Baer is a retired public school science teacher, a 30-plus year resident of the Monterey Peninsula, and a local water activist.