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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.

Water Quality

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Kristina Baer April 30, 2017, 1:27 pm

    Thank you, Michael, for your analysis. I hope you (and PWN) will circulate it widely and that all those with eyes to see and an ounce of common sense will, at long last, get it. The slant well technology is experimental. We’re paying for this preliminary phase, which, as far as we can tell, merits a D. What will it cost us if the technology fails to perform, even at its current, uncertain rate? We’re bearing the risk here, not Cal Am.

  • Tom Moore April 30, 2017, 11:30 pm

    Although the information is buried in a website listed in an obscure place in an appendix to the EIR/EIS, Michael is correct that there is data from the test slant well that shows that the water pumped from this well increases in salinity the longer that the slant well is continuously pumped. And when the well is turned off for weeks or a few months, the salinity decreases again near the well screens, i.e., when the well is turned on again, the salinity has decreased.

    In short, run the slant well long enough and salinity goes up; turn it off and salinity goes down. And here’s the problem with this. The test slant well has proven that it is damaging the 180/400 Sub-basin of the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin. After all, the test slant well is screened in the 180/400 Sub-basin (as defined by the California Department of Water Resources).

    It’s pretty simple – sucking seawater into the 180/400 Sub-basin is and has been called seawater intrusion for decades. The test slant well causes seawater intrusion and does so in the groundwater basin that is the primary source of water for Marina and the Ord Community.

    However, Cal Am should not despair – there is an easy solution to this problem: put your well screens far enough out to sea, under the ocean, so that the cone of depression caused by your pumping will not reach the 180/400 Sub-basin. (The sub-basin’s western boundary is the high tide line.)

    Of course, Dr. Williams would be disappointed if this were to be done, because slant wells don’t seem to be able to go that far. There is, however, another more reliable technology that can do this – it’s called horizontal directional drilling. And this technology has been around for decades. Even Marina Coast Water District has used horizontal directional drilling to put water mains under roadways without cutting them open.

  • bill hood May 1, 2017, 7:03 am

    Excellent commentary, Michael and the same goes for Tom’s posting. However, and this is my opinion only, the science and technology of water supply, particularly as practiced by CalAm, is very complex and the average person will either choose not to read what you write or, if read, likely not to fully understand the import of what you both are trying to say. In order to effectively communicate you have to know your audience you are reaching. We all, especially including myself, have fallen short in that respect. To get major public support, we have to take the technical out of the dialogue.

    • Michael Baer May 1, 2017, 8:01 am

      Science Literacy is a challenge, Bill. I think the first two indices are pretty straight forward. #1) 480 out of 722 days of operation is 67% and that is far from excellent. #2) Everyone is taking CalAm’s word on how much water the slant well is yielding without any evidence presented to back up their claims.

      Number 3 is a bit more complicated, but I think the gist is that well monitors were put in place to check against seawater intrusion, and even though those monitors indicate significant seawater intrusion, those facts are being ignored, because it is inconvenient to the results the experimenters want so they can make lots of money.

      • bill hood May 1, 2017, 6:24 pm

        Good points, Michael. Given those data, how have NOAA, the CPUC, the SWRCB or any other regulatory agency that has a hand in all of this? Have you considered using your commentary in a letter to any of them? Keep up the good work and don’t pay any attention to me.

  • Karl Pallastrini May 1, 2017, 7:49 pm

    “Keep up the good work” but….Bill Hood has a point. You cannot teach water science to the rate-payers. Half of them won’t get it, and the other half doesn’t care about the data. Data can be spun in any direction. It appears to be coherent, whether presented by Cal Am or PWN. So here is what Joe rate-payer does understand.

    1. Why are my rates going up when I conserved water as directed by the Governor and Cal Am?
    2. Why didn’t Cal Am give the rate payers a “heads-up” or (truth in lending) when they appealed for conservation during the drought years? They knew that we would pay for our conversation efforts at some point. We didn’t. How about an honest approach to rate-payers? What would the conservation totals look like if rate-payers knew that their efforts would add to future bills?
    3. Why is the cost of water on the Monterey Peninsula at the highest rates nationally? Facts please.
    4. Spend more time dispelling the rumors about Public Water management, and support it with facts. There have been several articles to this point…but it cannot be overstated.
    5. Opposition to Public Ownership has come from Cal-Am, the Mayors and the Hotel / Motel Industry to name a few. Articles about what they have to gain with Cal-Am in charge would be good for Joe rate-payer to know.
    6. There is a level of concern / fear about who would manage a Public System. MPWMD has not proven to be a viable candidate for management of a public system.

    Water science is not of much interest to the consumers. They are concerned with rates and the thinking behind why. The issue needs to take a political perspective, which most people can relate to. Keep it simple. Talk about the lack of communication (regarding the truth about conservation), the glossy B.S. corporate mailings, and the fact that returns to the shareholders in Cal Am are the bottom line. If presented in layman’s terms, there is no question that Cal Am would have a difficult, if not impossible task before them in order to retain ownership. it won’t happen with scientific research, but it will with simple appeal to Joe rate-payer based on rising costs.

    • Michael Baer May 2, 2017, 11:30 am

      Karl, I don’t disagree with anything you say. Excellent points all. They should be incorporated into the “new measure O” campaign.

      The underlying idea of the commentary is that the slant well design is not only unproven, but now is proving to cause environmental damage to the groundwater resources in the area by exacerbating seawater intrusion. I think many ratepayers care about that too, I know I do.

      PWN wrote a letter talking about lousy science. CalAm replies that the slant well is outstanding. I was trying to make the point that they reached that conclusion by applying the lousy science that PWN is complaining about and that takes some details.

      Just like the lies you mention in your point #2, CalAm and the CPUC (through its EIR) are perpetuating lies about the feasibility of the slant well intake system. What happens if we spend $300 million on the desal plant and it doesn’t work in 3 or 10 years? Do we return to overdrafting the Carmel River again? As Kristina Baer (no relation) points out in her comment above, we are the ones taking the risks, not CalAm.

  • Helga Fellay May 2, 2017, 12:49 pm

    I have to agree with Karl’s comments above. The water issues are overwhelmingly complex, and there is a danger to confuse the average voter with too much complex information. The result might be that the voter will decide not to vote at all if they can’t understand what they are voting for. The complex information must be available, but in small print for the few interested in them and capable of understanding them. The average voter has a very busy life and has neither time nor energy nor interest in getting a Ph.D. in MoCo water issues. The message has to be simple: Why are our water rates the highest in the country? Why were we told to conserve, and when we did, they are now penalizing us for having followed their instructions? If the company makes stupid mistakes, why can’t the company (and its shareholders) be held responsible for THEIR mistakes, why should we have to pay for THEIR mistakes? Why does the other side refer to it as a “government takeover?” It’s not the US government that’s going to take over, it’s local residents who will own OUR own system, instead of some out-of-state corporation. Simple slogans that can be repeated often and will make sense to the average person.

  • Julie Blue May 3, 2017, 9:58 pm

    I am really taken aback on how Cal Am was able to increase there rates so much, my water bill that was just $45 two months ago is $87.88 this month!!! I actually did water my yard for the first time in months, but now that there is water that we can use, they are going to charge us twice as much as before the drought. How much does their CEO make and since they are private, do their shareholders make a profit- a profit on our WATER? We have been taken advantage of and now they are trying to take advantage of others (Marina) (Salinas farmers) ….when will it stop. We need to vote them out and it can be done, with so many people so actively aware of the political arena due to Trump, we need to use it to get CAL AM out or at least in line. Where do I sign up?
    Thanks for your article and research. The one comment that really held true to me was that we all have such busy lives that we can’t be watching everything (like CAL AM’s shenanigans) all the time.

    • Michael Baer May 4, 2017, 6:24 am

      Julie, Check out http://www.publicwaternow.org/ They will be organizing an initiative for a buy out attempt during 2018 elections. There are many ways to be involved, based on your skills and interests.