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I recently caused a commotion in the Monterey Herald’s letters section. On Tuesday, Aug. 29, the Herald printed a letter from Michael Baer of Monterey expressing his disappointment with the Mayors’ Water Authority, specifically their apparent inability to bring Cal Am’s ever-increasing water bills under control. So far so good.

Then in regard to Cal Am’s proposed desalination plant, Baer complained that the Water Authority could “not even be bothered to seriously consider a plan B, just in case this project goes the way of all previous Cal Am new water supply projects: failure.” This is where I saw a problem. Two, actually, but I chose to respond to only one.

The one I ignored was the alleged lack of a “plan B.” The Water Authority designated the project called Deep Water Desal as a backup plan. They directed the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to help develop the project on a parallel track with Cal Am’s project in case the latter fails to materialize. Baer may not have known this because it has not been given much attention in the local press beyond an initial announcement a couple years ago.

But I felt his other claim deserved some attention, as it has become popular in recent years to blame Cal Am for every previous project failure regardless of the cause or who was actually in charge. So I wrote the following letter, which was published in the Herald on Aug. 31s.

Cal Am not to blame for past failures

Michael Baer’s Aug. 29 letter made reference to the “failure” of “all previous Cal Am new water supply projects.” Let’s get the history straight. Cal Am has been the lead agency on only one water project, the current desalination plan. Earlier projects that failed were overseen by public agencies, not Cal Am.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District was in charge of two viable projects, a desalination plant in Sand City and a new Los Padres dam on the Carmel River. Taxpayer advocates and environmental groups convinced voters that these projects were too expensive, environmentally damaging, and growth inducing so they were killed at the ballot box.

More recently Marina Coast Water District was the lead agency for the Regional Desalination Project. It involved three public agencies (none of which represented Peninsula ratepayers), each designated to operate separate components of a single desalination plant which would sell water to Cal Am. A conflict of interest problem brought the whole thing crashing down.

Cal Am took the reins only after it became clear that the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project. And while this may not be saying much, Cal Am has made more progress than any public agency ever did.

James B. Toy, Seaside

The very next day the Herald published a letter from Jan Shriner, a board member of the Marina Coast Water District. She didn’t mention my letter specifically, but it was clear she didn’t care for my choice of words as her first two sentences made clear:

Cal Am is not a ‘lead agency’ of any project they propose. Cal Am can’t be the lead agency because they are the project proponent and a corporation.”

Evidently Shriner believes the term “agency” only applies to governmental organizations. Perhaps that is the case in her world of bureaucratic legalese, but my dictionary defines the word more broadly as “an organization, company, or bureau that provides a particular service,” so I believe I used the word correctly when I applied it to Cal Am. If I had said Cal Am was “in charge of” instead of the “lead agency on” only one project I might have avoided this little kerfuffle. Live and learn.

The remainder of her first paragraph said: “Cal Am was a partner in the Regional Desalination Project (RDP) along with Marina Coast Water District and the Monterey County Water Resource Agency (MCWRA). Cal Am pulled out of the project (and sued MCWD) reportedly because a MCWRA director was accused of conflict of interest. The former MCWRA director pled no contest to the charges.”

This seems to confirm my original assessment, but her choice of words spins the story more in Marina Coast’s favor. I suspect this was the motivation behind her letter as Marina Coast has been on the losing side of litigation with Cal Am in cases relating to both the failed RDP and Cal Am’s current project.

But she did make one valid point. In my last paragraph I said “the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project.” Shriner corrected me by pointing to the completion of a small desalination plant in Sand City and a project called Aquifer Storage and Recovery, which she said are both under the authority of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. A pending recycled water project called Pure Water Monterey is a joint effort involving three public agencies. Those projects had crossed my mind when I wrote my original letter, but even when combined they don’t come close to fulfilling the need. However, they do help so for accuracy I should have said “the public agencies were unable to deliver a complete water supply solution.”

Moving along, on Sept. 2 and 3 two more letters appeared. The first was from Chuck Cech of Monterey, followed by Bill Hood, a part-time resident of Carmel. Both began with a brief reference to my letter indicating they didn’t like it. Then they changed the subject by asking me a series of long-winded questions about Cal Am’s handling of ratepayer money, which, of course, had nothing to do with the subject of my original letter except for inclusion of the water company’s name.

Along with their similar formatting, both letters seemed to imply that my unwillingness to blame Cal Am for the failure of three projects not under the company’s direct control somehow meant that I approve of everything Cal Am has ever done. The absurdity of that should be self-evident. And anyone who has read my previous writings about local water issues knows that at various times I have been both supportive and critical of Cal Am depending on the situation. I don’t know Chuck Cech, and he may never have heard of me, so he can be excused for not knowing that. Bill Hood, on the other hand, has no excuses. He and I have had several online discussions on this topic, including private e-mails and public comments on the pages of the Monterey Bay Partisan. He knows where I stand and it’s not where his very public letter placed me.

Since their two attack letters deviated so far from the subject of mine, I feel no obligation to answer their questions. But what the heck. I have nothing better to do right now, so I’ll give them a go.

Cech began with a note of gratitude: “Mr. Toy thank you for telling us Cal Am was not the lead agency on the three failed projects. However, Cal Am was a partner in each of these projects. They spent millions of dollars on each of these projects.”

It goes without saying that Cal Am was a partner since they would deliver any water produced by these projects. I assumed that was self-evident so I saw no need to deplete my 200-word allocation to explain that in my letter.

Then he launched his inquisition with this: “Every one of these projects failed. Does Cal Am have difficulty working with others, when it comes to controlling water delivery and cost on the Monterey Peninsula?”

Well, let’s see. I don’t recall any reports of strife between Cal Am and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, and the company seems to have a pretty cozy relationship with the Peninsula Mayors’ Water Authority (some say they’re too cozy). So, no, they don’t seem to have difficulty working with those agencies. As for Cal Am and Marina Coast, it’s no secret that their relationship has been strained since the collapse of the RDP program. Is Cal Am to blame? Maybe, but Marina Coast doesn’t have a particularly good reputation for cooperation. Two years ago then-Congressman Sam Farr suggested that Marina Coast should be disbanded because “they just haven’t conducted themselves in a very professional way. They’ve been fighting everybody else, and they’ve been sort of selfish and arrogant.” So there’s that to consider.

Cech continued….and continued:

Did Cal Am conduct the necessary due diligence investigation of all aspects of these projects before agreeing to join them? Since Cal Am was not the lead agency on any of these failed projects, why did they spend a total of $34 million on them, without turning one shovel of dirt? Why is Cal Am not responsible for their cost of these projects? Why are ratepayers now paying $34 million to Cal Am plus interest for these failed projects?”

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Why don’t you ask Cal Am? While you’re at it, ask their lapdogs at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Hood had a similar line of questioning, but he opened by impugning my recollection of past events: “Mr. Toy relies upon his version of history to claim that Cal Am is not at fault with respect to the present condition of water supply efforts.”

Stop right there, Bill. It looks like you’re accusing me of making up alternative facts, Conway style. I take that very seriously because my reputation is at stake. If you are going to announce to the entire Peninsula that I have fabricated my own “version of history” contrary to actual history you need to explain your reasoning. If I have said anything that is untrue then by all means correct me (as Jan Shriner did). I’ll take my lumps, learn from it, and strive to do better next time. But please don’t suggest in public that I’m spreading misinformation then blow past the accusation by saying nothing more than…

I do not agree with him, but even if I did, I would ask Mr. Toy these questions:”

And just like Cech , you abruptly change the subject. I call this diversionary tactic “debate and switch.”

Now to answer your question: “Yes, a fact-based opinion as to whether or not Cal Am is the villain in the Peninsula water scenario is necessary (and, frankly, is already on the record). But, why are you avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’ by ignoring the more immediate and concerning issue that has resulted from the historical and ongoing Cal Am/CPUC/local political support process that has created the highest cost of water in the country?

I’m not avoiding the subject. In my blog and in the comments section of the Monterey Bay Partisan I have used the word “unethical” to describe Cal Am’s recent retroactive rate increase. But I didn’t mention it in my letter because…

a.) Water rates were not the subject of my letter.

b.) The Herald’s 200-word limit prevented me from going off on a tangent about water rates.

c.) The subject of Cal Am’s high rates is discussed almost daily in the Herald’s letters section and frequently in the Monterey Bay Partisan. At this point there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said a dozen times already

Next question:  “Even if you were right and I was wrong, doesn’t all of this tell you that something is amiss and has to be corrected?”

Yes.

Do you really believe that the nation’s highest water costs are the result from other factors at play not related to Cal Am, et al?”

The question is a little confusing. Do Peninsula voters, the Water Management District, and the state water board’s cease and desist order qualify as “other factors” or do they get lumped in with “et al”? If they are other factors then my answer is yes. If they fall under et al then, no.

Either way, are you satisfied with the current situation, and, if so, why?”

I’m not at all satisfied. In an earlier commentary here I likened our situation to a “freakin’ nuthouse.” As the years have passed there’s been more and more bickering and less and less cooperation among everyone involved.

Making matters worse, Cal Am squandered a lot of goodwill by imposing their retroactive rate increase on top of rate increases to build their desal plant. And whoever was the genius that guaranteed Cal Am a certain amount of profit from every capital investment, including unproductive ones, should be run out of town in a westerly direction. But when it comes to building a water supply project Cal Am strikes me as the only adult in the room. The company is under a lot of pressure to succeed, and they’re doing their darnedest, yet a lot of people seem determined to block their every move. I tell you again, local water politics is a freakin’ nuthouse!

The really frustrating part is that it was ridiculously easy to avoid the current situation, but we collectively chose not to. Had voters approved the local water district’s plans for a dam and desal plant combo in the 1990s, the mess we’re in now would never have happened. The state would likely never have imposed a cease and desist order on Cal Am pumping. Cal Am would never have gotten into a costly failed deal with Marina Coast, nor would the company be sinking buckets of capital into their own desal plant to be paid for with our water bills.

But Peninsula voters were led astray by various activist groups claiming that better, faster, and cheaper projects could be had if we just listened to them and ignored the advice of the bureaucrats. But their promises were empty. They never had a plan. In the last quarter century the names of the activists have changed, but their message is the same. They’re still promising better, faster, cheaper water if we just listen to them. Unlike the majority of voters I didn’t believe them then, and I certainly don’t believe them now.

So here’s where I stand. I don’t care if the water company is public or private. I don’t care if our new water supply involves a dam, a desal plant, water hyacinths, or icebergs towed in from Alaska. I don’t care if a desal plant is fed by slant wells, open ocean intakes, or a bucket brigade. I don’t care whose toes get stepped on, whose feelings get hurt, or whose ideology gets squashed. At this point I don’t even care how much it is going to cost. I just want it done!

James Toy lives in Seaside and is a regular contributor to the Partisan. This first appeared on one of his blogsMr. Toy’s Mental Notes.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • john moore September 13, 2017, 11:13 am

    I too want it done. But I want a “start over.” The slant well approach to a desal plant will not work for multiple reasons, including that is unproven technology and interferes with the water rights of others.

    The recycle project should be stopped, or, continued for other than potable water purposes, because there is no evidence that agricultural waste can provide safe drinking water. The only reason it passes current tests is because current tests do not test for several types of bacteria etc. related to agriculture waste. Could scientists devise such tests? Evidently, but over a course of years.

    Start over with a deep water project constructed and managed by the best company or govt. bidder based on the responses to an RFQ . The MBWMD appears to be the agency to administer the RFQ, but their record for competence, requires an “if any.” The winner of the RFQ process would then sell the water to Cal Am. Cal Am would not then receive an extra 10% a year for the cost of the project.

    The question of buying out Cal Am should be kept separate from the “emergency” plan that I have just suggested. If my proposal seems brash, it is because the current desal and recycle programs are “nuts” and cannot provide a reliable potent water supply.

  • john moore September 13, 2017, 1:56 pm

    Potent should read “potable.”

  • Dan Turner September 13, 2017, 2:25 pm

    “Then they changed the subject by asking me a series of long-winded questions…”. Jesus Christ, Jimbo! They’ve got nothing on you when it comes to being long-winded!

  • Dan Miller September 13, 2017, 4:30 pm

    Geez Louise, really? People say I’m long winded but I got nothing on you. Rather then addressing the letter, which was probably read by the ten subscribers or just passed around, there are a few things that are evident. 1. Cal-Am never dredged the dam which caused many of its problems. 2. The Mayor’s Water Authority is a group of Mayors who, especially in the case of Pacific Grove, never talk to their councils about what they should be doing. Cities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on this lapdog for Cal-Am. Any Mayor that doesn’t step off from the body is in no way representing the will of the people of their city.3. Its amazing how much Cal-Am spent to defeat the takeover unlike most of the previous actions. In other words they could have defeated the “activists” if they had truly wanted. The short shrift that Nader Agha’s project has been given is close to criminal. Deep Water Desal. Really? Their assets are what…David Armanasco? I was sitting in an office the other day and was thumbing through an old National Geographic. There was Deep Water claiming that they will be in 2018. Really? That was their statement a year and a half ago. It will never happen. Slant Wells will never happen and in the end we will all be back to Nader Agha while the debacle in the city of Pacific Grove, with some of the same people who brought you the Marina Project and Pure Water which will make Detroit water look yummy, will still be draining coffers and crapping along. Wake up people.

  • Dan Turner September 13, 2017, 6:19 pm

    You know, Jimbo, I can’t figure out whether you’re a Libertarian type who is simply philosophically and/or ideologically opposed to the “gummint” (the people, us) taking property away from folks via eminent domain condemnation, or if you’re just a contrarian whose “payoff” is getting other folks aggravated.
    You don’t seem to have gotten the memo that we – our Monterey Peninsula area community – are locked in a life and death struggle w/CalAm, a very large and powerful corporation. Think I’m being melodramatic? CalAm will continue to raise our rates through the roof in its drive to increase its profits. Its top execs (it and its parent company, American Water in NJ) million dollar salaries and bonuses are tied to its stock price and nothing drive stock prices up like enormous profits. They will bleed us white. They will suck the life blood out of this community to the point that people will buy less of everything because their water bills will be so high. The only way that we can avoid this fate that awaits us if we stay w/CalAm is to get rid of it and create a public agency to deliver our water.
    But you just sit there and natter about this and that. Is everything we say about CalAm absolutely and positively accurate and can it be proven down to the n-th degree? Hasn’t CalAm done some good things and shouldn’t we give it credit for that? Our parents’ generation was also involved in a life and death struggle w/fascism and, until December 7, 1941, there were people like you pointing out that maybe not everything that was said about Germany and Japan was absolutely true and, besides, hadn’t they done some good things? That’s not good company, Jimbo.

    • James Toy September 13, 2017, 11:11 pm

      Are you seriously comparing Cal Am to the architects of WWII? And me to fascist sympathizers? Yes, you’re being melodramatic. Life and death struggle with the water company? Cal Am hasn’t killed anybody or blown up houses like PG&E has (now there’s a utility company that deserves a public takeover!).

      And the part where I described a Cal Am rate increase as unethical, what part of that made you think I approved of it?

  • Bill Hood September 13, 2017, 6:42 pm

    Well, Mr. Toy, quite a rebuttal. Let’s look at what your letter’s point was. You concluded that public “agencies” (which you have now stated is confined to PUBLIC organizations) were at fault. The failures that occurred, you conclude, happened on their watch – they were in charge, and therefore they are responsible. If you had clarified that point, I could agree. But what you did do was conclude that the “lead agencies” failed, and only that Cal-AM was not a lead agency. You didn’t specifically state that Cal-Am was therefore not responsible. But what other reasonable interpretation of your conclusion is there? If you had followed the failures, and I agree that there were many of them, you would know that all the parties involved in the Regional Water Project, involving the Water District, the Marina Water District and Cal-Am were at fault at various levels. In fact, the straw that broke the camel’s back were the conflicts of interest that heavily involved Cal-Am.
    Then there is your concern that I have impugned your reputation because your version of his tory was wrong. Think about it. History, of course is based on facts and upon information known to persons who experienced it and wrote or spoke about their observations. In that process, there is innately the necessity to interpret the facts and observations before you. As I say, the only reasonable interpretation of your letter is that don’t look to Cal-Am as causing the failures. I don’t know which facts you rely upon to intimate that conclusion, but you must be overlooking the aforementioned conflicts of interest, Cal-Am’s mismanagement of the San Clemente Dam, the hard-to-explain why a supposedly independent “agency (the CPUC) has an almost 100% “history” of approving all of Cal-Am’s rate increase requests, and the fact that, under the CPUC process, Cal-Am realizes as guaranteed profit, no matter how well or how badly their performance is.
    Finally, you complain that I criticize you for ignoring the ungodly high water costs that have been produced under Cal-Am’s tenure. You are right that you did not specifically speak to that, but if the point of your letter was to lift any conclusion that prior failures to provide a reliable water supply are not on Cal-Am’s back, then you are failing to look at such high water costs as an aberration not a common fact. Why do you think that there is an effort to obtain public water?
    Your final word is that you just want thing to change for the better and you don’t care about the cost to get it done. Can I assume you can afford it, no matter what it might be? If so, I admire you for your success, and I do believe you are a very intelligent and capable man. But, unlike you, there are many, many more people who live on the Peninsula but from day to day and paycheck to paycheck. They aren’t just persons who hold marginal employment – it also includes Ph.D’s and others well-educated men and women who move to the Peninsula to retire, only to find out that the cost of real estate is not the only barrier that they have to overcome.
    I do apologize if you thought I did you wrong. But the interpretation of history is not something that is never done.

    • James Toy September 13, 2017, 11:28 pm

      I have a history question for you, Bill. Do you believe Cal Am caused voters to reject two perfectly good water projects in the 1990s?

      In case you missed it, in my commentary I referred to the PUC as Cal Am’s lapdog and their retroactive rate increase as unethical. You and I are not as far a part as you think on those points.

  • L. Parrish September 13, 2017, 6:46 pm

    Royal –
    Really? What a waste of space and time. It’s obvious Mr. Toy knows a little about the water situation – but only a very little. Cal-Am is an agency? C’mon. It’s a profit-driven corporation. PERIOD. I would hesitate to count up all his “I” words ( I, I’m, I’ll, My etc. ) because it would take quite awhile. But, it’s clear this guy loves to talk about himself, and not much else.

  • Lou Panetta September 13, 2017, 7:16 pm

    Blah. Blah. Blah. And on it goes … year after year. Talk. Talk. Talk. What a bunch a crap. The fish hold sway over the people. Build a damn and a REAL desalt plant. Get rid of Cal Scam and be done with it. George, I’ll gather signatures. Count me in. This is getting pathetic.

  • Bob bressan September 14, 2017, 10:39 am

    Wasn’t Cal Am cutting the checks that led to the criminal conviction that James refers to as “a conflict of interest problem” in the regional desalininization project? Don’t they share responsibility for that failure?

    • James Toy September 14, 2017, 5:17 pm

      The RDP was a bureaucratic mess from the beginning. Cal Am’s only involvement was to own the pipeline out of the plant to the Peninsula. Marina Coast was to own and operate just the actual desal plant. But the intake pipes would be controlled by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, while the pipes discharging brine back into the bay were to be run by the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency. One plant managed by three separate agencies, NONE of which would be accountable to Peninsula ratepayers who would consume the water. That raised a lot of red flags at the Herald (when Royal Calkins wrote several editorials critical of the arrangement), the PUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates, and among Peninsula water activists. It was bound to collapse under its own weight eventually. The conflict of interest problem merely hastened that process.

      • Michael Helmes September 29, 2017, 12:36 pm

        Thank you for so clearly explaining what brought down the RDP. The minor conflict of interest which was used as a scapegoat was never a credible reason considering the tens of millions of dollars invested in it by the whole cast of characters. And there have been (and are probably still are) millions more spent on legal fees to unravel it with lawsuits every which way.
        It became such a bureaucratic mess partly because of a very reasonable County requirement that a public facility had to be owned by a public agency, in this case the Marina Coast Water District. I expect the reasoning was that because water is a essential requirement of life it was not to be privately owned as a commodity to be manipulated for corporate profits as most others are. However, surely before the RDP’s collapse was know to the public, a deal was struck between the County and CalAm in which the County would overlook this requirement and allow CalAm to be own the facility in exchange for the CalAm paying the County’s legal fees involving the RDP. Surely the CalAm ratepayers are paying this questionable money on our water bills.
        Once given free hand, CalAm put together the Mayor’ Water Authority and business groups to push through its plan with the promise that the adults were now in charge. Trust us. But then the slant well mess with its many delays and there own conflict of interest with the slant well “inventor”. And the fact that the proposed wells would draw from an aquifer not within CalAm’s watershed. In fact it is from Marina Coast’s watershed with whom they are in numerous disputes and legal actions. CalAm is proposing to provide treated water to them in exchange for drawing from there aquifer. At ratepayer’s expense of course. Or it may become another protracted and expensive legal fight which CalAm could easily lose.
        I hate to think of it but I feel that we should be giving a much closer look at the alternatives (as others have suggested) because the current plan is not a sure thing.
        And question if the County’s actions getting us into this mess were appropriate and legal.
        And we should definitely buy out CalAm and take control of our most essential resource.