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Are both District 4 supervisorial candidates really for “smart growth?”

Most of us have a hard time envisioning 15,000 acres because we don’t deal with properties of that size. This should help. The existing Fort Ord National Monument is about 15,000 acres. The fort itself was about twice that size during its heyday. Toro Regional Park between Monterey and Salinas stretches deeper into the hills than you’d expect but still covers only 5,000 acres or so. It would take three Toros to equal 15,000 acres.

Remember the Rancho San Juan proposal? That was one of the big land-use controversies of the last decade. The Rancho San Juan community north of Salinas would have been huge but it would have taken seven of them to cover 15,000 acres.

Need something smaller? Maybe you’ve been to Spreckels, the cute community near Salinas. Set 200 of them side by side and you’d have 15,000 acres.

We’re talking about 15,000 acres here because that’s the amount of good farmland that would be turned over to development purposes under the proposed Economic Development Element to the Salinas General Plan. No, it wouldn’t be developed all at once, of course. It would happen in dribs and drabs, so most of the work wouldn’t set off any Rancho San Juan-style controversies.

Much of that development would be to the southwest and southeast of current Salinas city limits. Significantly, it would spread the city south beyond Blanco Road, which traditionally has been viewed as the firm and final dividing line between urban and ag.

We’re talking about that 15,000 acres now because it is a factor in the current political campaign between Monterey County Supervisor Jane Parker and challenger Dennis Donohue, the former mayor of Salinas. It is a factor, an important factor even, though it has not yet risen to the status of a public campaign issue. That’s because Parker is a quiet sort, not one to shout about things, and Donohue maybe isn’t sure how to play it.

According to a handful of knowledgeable observers, including Supervisor Dave Potter, Donohue’s support for the Economic Development Element is a key reason that former Supervisor Lou Calcagno chose to endorse environmentalist Parker over agriculturalist Donohue in the June contest. It was a big deal, that endorsement.

Calcagno was a major force on the board, often the swing vote. And though he is something of an environmentalist, he was better known as a champion of both agriculture and development, as incompatible as those two industries might seem. What some folks don’t know about Calcagno, however, is that he is a fierce champion of preserving farm land. That’s why he has been active for years now with the Ag Land Trust, which helps provide tax advantages for farmers who agree to easements protecting their land from commercial or residential development.

Anyone who didn’t know about Calcagno’s position on farmland or the Economic Development Element must have been surprised to hear of his endorsement of Parker. By the way, did I mention that some of the 15,000 acres slated for development is currently covered by Ag Land Trusts?

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This map details the Economic Development Element of the Salinas General Plan. I do now know why it isn’t more clear. For a better version, click on the LandWatch link below.

So is Donohue really supporting the Economic Development Element, which still faces an environmental impact review before it will be eagerly adopted by the growth-minded Salinas City Council? He says he hasn’t really made up his mind.

“I could not begin to offer an opinion on the reasons behind why Lou endorsed my opponent because he never spoke to me about my candidacy,” Donohue said via email. “Additionally, to comment on the expansion of South Salinas would be completely irresponsible as I have yet to see any plans, formal or otherwise and to offer an opinion would be pure speculation.

“What I can definitively say, is that as the three-term mayor of Salinas and candidate for District 4 supervisor, I am in complete support of the revitalization of Oldtown Salinas, and feel our efforts should be focused on what we can accomplish in the near term.”

I had told Donohue in an email of my own that others believed that he is squarely behind the 15,000-acre plan but he didn’t address that point. He says he hasn’t seen any plans, formal or otherwise, yet the Economic Development Element has been around since 2014, has been unanimously approved by the Salinas City Council and has been the subject of at least one article in the Monterey County Weekly.

To be clear, the Economic Development Element proposes much more than merely gobbling up farmland. It pushes the concept of Salinas as a key player in the intersection of ag and technology, something Donohue had pushed hard during his tenure as mayor. It would provide space for industrial uses and promote significant highway construction and traffic reconfiguration, ending the near gridlock conditions that sometimes occur in and near the ag-related industrial zone near the airport. I figure the promise of change there is a big part of why big ag is supporting Donohue in a big way, campaign contributionwise.

The Economic Development Element makes no secret of its intentions. Its south-of-Blanco ambitions are spelled out in maps and its underlying intent is delineated here:“Lack of available vacant land within city limits and within the city’s sphere of influence is a key constraint to economic development.”

So you might be asking what this has to do with the Board of Supervisors? Good question.

The county comes into the equation at several levels. First, the county government is well-represented at LAFCO. That’s the agency that determines when cities can annex property or even widen what is known as their spheres of influence, the area of probable expansion. A Board of Supervisors that includes Donohue rather than Parker would be a Board of Supervisors more likely to support the annexation effort.

Urban boundaries also represent agreements between the cities and the county because the lines affect the provision of constituent services and the collection of taxes. The city of Salinas would find it easier to negotiate with a board that includes Donohue instead of a board that includes Parker.

For her part, Parker doesn’t have a lot to say. She’s like that. She has done little so far to trumpet Calcagno’s endorsement. She offered only a short take on the subject.

“As you know, I support smart growth and the preservation of farmland — both of which contribute to our economic vitality.  My understanding is that extending the city limits south of Blanco could violate an agreement between the city and county.  Right now, it’s important to focus on the economic vitality of downtown Salinas.”

Oh, by the way, LandWatch Monterey County has already had something to say about the Economic Development Element. Among other things, it has argued in letters to the city that considerable vacant and underutilized property now exists within city limits, that thousands of acres designated for residential development to the north and east of the city remains open and that development on the fringes of a city tends to discourage healthier and more efficient infill development.

LandWatch’s Amy White also makes a key point about water. Supporters of the Economic Development Element argue that industrial development generally does not require more water than the previous agricultural use. White counters that taking farmland out of production often results in cultivation of rangeland and other untilled acreage, resulting in a net increase in water use, a huge factor in the Salinas Valley.

So, it’s complicated, as you probably have concluded from the length and meandering nature of this missive. That’s partly why, as important as it is, you probably won’t be reading about the issue until well after the election, at which point it may be too late to do anything about it, depending on who wins.

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Consultants working for the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal Am Water stand around a well that the could have sworn does not exist

Q: How many fellows representing the Public Utilities Commission does it take to  look at a well?

A: Four, if this week’s visit to the Ag Land Trust well is an indication. One to say, “Look, there it is.” Another to say, “Yup, that is a well, isn’t it?” A third to say, “Looks like a well to me.” And the fourth to say, “Hmm.”

Readers who pay close attention to water issues locally may remember the stories in May about how the people preparing an environmental impact report on the Cal Am desalination project had reported that there were no wells on the Ag Land Trust property adjacent to the Cemex plant where Cal Am plans to located its desal facility.

Attorney Marc Del Piero of the Ag Land Trust argues that the pumping at the desalination plant would infringe on the groundwater rights of other property owners in the area and would accelerate seawater intrusion, threatening farms in the area.

Although there are two wells on the Ag Land Trust property, the consulting firm Environmental Science Associates wrote in the draft environmental impact report that such concerns were invalid and, as to support that position, declared that there are no such wells.

In response, Del Piero switched on the pump at one of the wells, producing a cascade of water that made for a terribly amateurish but relatively interesting video clip on the Partisan website.

You can see the clip and read the history here.

Tuesday, ESA representatives and others got a guided tour of the wells as they work on an environmental impact report to replace the original version. Draft No. 1 wasn’t tossed out because of the missing wells but because one of the key hydrologists working on the first study turned out to have a sizable conflict of interest. He was being paid to assess the type of wells Cal Am intends to use even though he holds patents on the technology.

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Eric Zigas of Environmental Science Associates listens to Peninsula water activist Michael Baer

Among those getting his feet muddy at the Ag Land Trust property on Tuesday was Chuck Cech, the retired engineer who first spotted that conflict. He mentioned that he has some new concerns about the methodology being used to test the water being pumped by the Cal Am test well at the Cemex property.

The fellow heading the EIR process for ESA, Eriz Zigas, was one of those who was nodding Tuesday about the existence of the wells. He wrote a nice note Wednesday to Del Piero and the Ag Land Trust’s Sherwood Darrington:

“I wanted to thank you both for taking the time yesterday, to escort me and members of the MPWSP (Monterey Peninsjla Water Supply Project) CEQA (California Enviromental Quality Act) Team onto your property in Marina, for the expressed purpose of viewing the Big Well and the small well. It was a useful and helpful visit. It was important for us to learn about your preservation and restoration activities, and it certainly was a surprise to see so many other interested parties at the walk through!”

You’ll notice he said “surprise” but not “pleasant surprise.”

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business figurines placed under plastic coffee cupsThe Partisan will be relieved when conversation about Cal Am’s desalination project moves beyond the test well stage because the current discussion is simply too technical for the journalism and English major types who produce and consume most of the words on these pages.

Sometimes, however, circumstances force us to recognize the importance of science, technology and test wells. This seems to be one of those times for at least two reasons.

First, we are told that the California Coastal Commission has ordered the test well to stop testing because the groundwater level in and around the well is declining. That apparently comes as a surprise to Cal Am even though the well has been pumping something like 2,000 gallons a minute. That’s enough water to fill an Olympic-sized pool in less than six hours.

It seems, according to a report from hydrologists working for the state Public Utilities Commission, that groundwater in the area has dropped by more than a foot in recent weeks. Those same people say it’s no big deal, however. They say the water level has probably dropped because farm wells have been running lately in order to irrigate artichokes and broccoli fields nearby.

But wait a minute! Some of those same people, also working for Cal Am, have been telling us for the past year or so that there aren’t any farm wells in the area. Farms, yes, but each of them connected to the regional recycling program in Castroville. That’s what all those purple pipes and purple wells are about.

Cal Am and its hired hands have gone to great lengths to explain that the water underlying the proposed desalination plant site is too salty to support crops. Seawater intrusion. No one would want to water like that. That’s why the plant is proposed for that site. There’s all that seawater just sitting there itching to be made fresh.

The test well is supposed to predict what will happen to the groundwater and other features if Cal Am builds a desalination plant in the same spot, at the Cemex property on the beach near Marina. Among the big questions is whether desalination wells there would suck up too much fresh water that actually belongs to the folks with rights to water in the Salinas Valley basin.

So, to recap, hydrologists working for Cal Am and the state tell us that farms around the desalination plant site won’t affect the groundwater. Then after Cal Am’s test well pumps a heckuva lot of water and the groundwater level declines significantly, Cal Am tells us that the farms around the desalination plant must be to blame.

I’m thinking that if Cal Am’s explanation holds up, the company should get out of the water business and into the production and marketing of produce that thrives on seawater.

Unfortunately, that is not the only Cal Am-related contradiction of the day.

The existence or non-existence of usable water and other wells in the area is the topic of litigation between the Ag Land Trust and Cal Am. The Ag Land Trust maintains Cal Am doesn’t have any right to pump water from below the proposed site of the desalination plant. Cal Am says oh yes we do. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

Anyway, in connection with that litigation, ongoing in Santa Cruz Superior Court, Cal Am lawyers say that the test well, the one pumping 2,000 gallons per minute, is part of a temporary scientific test project that “will be constructed, operated and decommissioned over approximately 24 to 28 months.” In other words, don’t worry all that much about the well because we’re going to stop using it in a couple of years.

However, the draft environmental impact report for the project tells us that the test well will be incorporated into the desalination project and continue to be used for as long as desalination plants last.

As far as we can tell, the source of both those slices of information is the same. Consultants and hydrologists working for Cal Am. We’re also told that the information they provide for use in court papers and draft environmental impact reports is supposed to be submitted under oath.

Some may recall that the draft environmental impact report says people working for Cal Am and/or the PUC couldn’t even find the Ag Land Trust well near the test well. When we put on our Partisan boots to sample water drawn from that well, and posted video of water shooting from that very well, we had some questions, so we reached out to the fellow in charge of the environmental impact report. He hung up on us.

The Partisan contacted that fellow, Eric Zigas, again this week with the question of why some folks say the well is temporary and the same folks say it is permanent. Lurking behind that question, of course, are the larger questions of whether environmental impact reports are supposed to be accurate and what happens if they aren’t. We’re told that there are laws about those things.

Zigas didn’t hang up on us this time. That’s because we contacted him by email. In his first response, he essentially told us to read the EIR. We did that and got back to him with the same question that prompted our inquiry in the first place. This time he replied with a simple “no comment.”

For the purposes of keeping the lines of communication open, we’ll pose our latest question to him here. The EIR indicates that the team that produced the EIR had evaluated the test well’s potential impact as a permanent feature of the desal plant. We’re told that there are very different requirements for studying environmental impacts of temporary and permanent features. We’re curious about whether the money spent on that work will be refunded to Cal Am customers if it turns out that the well is only meant to be temporary. Mr. Zigas is welcome to respond by the method of his choosing but, just to be clear, we’re hoping for an actual answer.

Enough for now, but if you’ve read this far and don’t know about the flap above the slant well patents, it would be a shame if we didn’t include a link here to a new Monterey Country Weekly story about how one of the fellows deeply involved in all the stuff you read about above is the patent holder for the slant well process that Cal Am is trying out. The problem, of course, is how do you trust someone to accurately test something when the results could affect the amount of money in his pocket.

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It was an apparent miracle in the field Monday, an artichoke field instead of a bean field, but a miracle nonetheless.

Right there within sight of the Cal Am desalination site, almost in the shadow of Highway 1, water streamed from a well that does not exist, or at least it doesn’t exist in the eyes of the company that wrote the draft environmental impact report for the desal plant and also according to the Carmel Pine Cone, which seems to operate as Cal Am’s public relations arm at times.

Environmental Science Associates reported in the draft EIR last month that it had been unable to find any wells at the Ag Land Trust artichoke fields that adjoin the Cemex facility north of Marina, which is where Cal Am plans to build its desalination compound. It matters because Marc del Piero, the lawyer for the Ag Land Trust, argues in court filings that the desalination project could draw down groundwater in the area, injuring the Ag Land Trust wells and possibility accelerating the intrusion of seawater into the fresh water aquifer.

Del Piero’s position is that the Cal Am operation could jeopardizes other wells in the area and that the issue needs further study. The EIR consultant’s position, however, seems to be that there aren’t any other wells to worry about.

It is entirely possible that the consultant, ESA, simply made a mistake or got confused. Or, perhaps, someone decided that by declaring the well non-existent, potential impacts could be ignored despite state law that frowns on ignoring impacts. Who knows? Regardless, the Partisan subsequently reported May 1 that it had found both an operational well on the Ag Land Trust property and a disconnected well nearby.

In conversation with the Partisan on Friday, ESA’s Eric Zigas initially clung to his position that no well exists, and then he backtracked to say there was no “active” well. He then backtracked further, saying his company had not conducted the search for the well. He said that was done by a hydrologist, Martin Feeney, who does work for Cal Am, the Salinas Valley Water Coalition and others. Feeney said Friday that the well doesn’t count because Monterey County officials don’t maintain a log for it, making it illegal. Del Piero says that while the water in the well is slightly too salty to be used for irrigation, the well is properly permitted.

In another conversation, Zigas modified his stance even further. According to the Pine Cone, he acknowledged that there is a well near the reclamation pump at the Ag Land Trust property, but said it is “capped and permanently disconnected.”

In fact, it is neither capped nor disconnected, permanently or temporarily. It was operational two weeks ago and it was operational Monday morning when the Partisan returned to the Ag Land Trust artichoke field north of Marina.

And as the noon hour approached, the clouds that often shade that section of shoreline appeared to part. A shaft of sunlight guided us first to the purple pump that delivers water from the Castroville reclamation facility and then to the well and pipes 20 feet away. The Ag Land Trust’s Sherwood Darington flipped a switch from “reclamation district” to “well.” Soon there was the sound of a motor running and seconds later  a column of water gushed from a large pipe, startling some seagulls that had been observing nearby.

As we reported May 1, water pumped by the well is too salty to be used for irrigation, which is why the artichoke operation relies on recycled water pumped in from elsewhere. The water is only about 10 percent as saline as seawater, however, and could be mixed with other water and used for irrigation purposes, according to del Piero. He and I sampled the water Monday. I’m not sure I could taste any salt.

The Partisan had additional questions for Zigas, such as whether his consultants had found the other Ag Land Trust well. The well that gushed on Friday is east of Highway 1. The other well, which indeed is disconnected, is on the other side of the freeway. Zigas declined to answer, however, declaring the conversation “confrontational” before abruptly hanging up. Neither he nor his boss returned subsequent calls.

Del Piero’s comments follow:

“The Pine Cone article, specifically the Zigas quotes and the implications that reporter Kelly Nix tries to draw from them, is obviously false. The groundwater well is fully operational and it is not capped. We ran the well just a few weeks ago.  The paper, on behalf of Cal Am is trying to  ignore the deficiencies in the draft EIR  by implying that the Ag Land Trust deceived the Partisan and its readers.

“Being an apologist for Cal Am’s illegal takings of property rights and the California Public Utilities Commission’s ‘gang that can’t shoot straight’ must be very tiresome for the Cal Am cheerleaders. What newspaper writes an article without checking the facts, or calling the party whose property rights are being taken, or relying solely on a person whose massive mistake will undermine the timeline of the CPUC. By the article, it appears that they are trying to undercut the credibility of the Ag Land Trust, which is objecting to Cal Am’s intentional illegal taking of the trust’s groundwater rights and supplies without compensation, and to undercut the credibility of the Partisan, because they do not like Proprietor Editor Royal Calkins, who took the time to check his facts and visit the well.”

The Partisan directed several questions to the author of the Pine Cone report, but his only response was to repeat that Zigas said the well is permanently out of commission.

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Clean Drinking WaterThe draft environmental impact report on Cal Am’s proposed desalination plant concludes that the controversial operation would have “less than significant” impact on groundwater, salt water intrusion and Monterey Bay water quality, the subjects of serious concern among opponents of the slow-moving project.

The report was made public Thursday on the state Public Utilities Commission website, setting off a 60-day comment period.

Environmental Science Associates, which prepared the dense, 1,700-page document, also concludes that construction of a smaller plant obviously would have less of an environmental impact even if combined with a new groundwater replenishment project.

Environmental groups and the Ag Land Trust, which owns property next to the project site on the Cemex property north of Marina, have contended that the plant’s pumps would illegally suck up fresh water belonging to others, including water long claimed by Salinas Valley growers. The EIR agrees that fresh water would be drawn in, possibly more than Cal Am’s engineers expected, but it estimates that the plant would draw down the water table in the area by no more than a foot. It labels that a less than significant impact, one that would not require any mitigation.

The report mentions that the Ag Land Trust says it operates a well about a mile from the plant site but an EIR subcontractor couldn’t find it and the State Water Resources Control Board has no record of it. The trust has been sharply critical of the project.

It is possible, according to the report, that the desalination operation actually could ease seawater intrusion by drawing fresh water toward the ocean.

The report says brine discharged by the plant would violate water quality standards in the bay but indicates that the damage could be mitigated. Some scientists have opined that the brine is likely to settle on the floor of the bay and create a dead zone.

Clean Drinking WaterCal Am is under pressure to create a new water supply because of a state order that it dramatically cut back on its use of Carmel River water by the end of next year. With the desalination process slowly slogging through the engineering and regulatory processes, local officials have given up on the 2016 deadline and are pleading with state officials to push the deadline back by several years.

Copies of the report are available at the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency offices in Ryan Ranch, at the Marina and Seaside community development departments and at some area libraries.

A series of public meetings is scheduled to start May 26 at the Marina library.

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????Cal Am’s pursuit of a desalination plant in Marina will likely face a pivotal court test this week as the Ag Land Trust has joined the Marina Coast Water District in challenging the legality of the water company’s proposed test well.

Cal Am officials have said that the project timeline could be pushed back a year or more if it can’t drill by the end of the coming week, but it remains to be seen if the stated deadline is real or part of an effort to put pressure on the various agencies involved in the process. Cal Am has said it has drills and other equipment ready to roll.

The Ag Land Trust filed suit  late Friday in Monterey County Superior Court, contending that Cal Am, also known as California American Water, simply doesn’t have rights to the water it intends to pump. It also contends that the California Coastal Commission acted illegally when it ruled last month that the test well could proceed.  (Click here for copy of lawsuit.)

Marina Coast originally filed its action in Sacramento Superior Court because the Coastal Commission is a state body, but a judge in the capital ruled last week that the matter should be heard in Monterey. Ag Land Trust officials may attempt to move the case elsewhere but elected to pursue their challenge in Monterey in the meantime.

“Cal Am has no groundwater rights in the over-drafted Salinas River groundwater basin and cannot acquire any in an over-drafted basin,” said the Ag Land Trust petition. The action was filed on the Ag Land Trust’s behalf by William Parkin. He is a partner in the Santa Cruz law firm of Wittwer Parkin, where Gary Patton, the founding executive of LandWatch, was a partner until 2013. Cal Am’s lawyer, Tony Lombardo, couldn’t be reached on Saturday.

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Ag Land Trust President Aaron Johnson

For more background on the test well and related issues, see this Partisan story from last month.

The Ag Land Trust is a non-profit land conservancy that has protected some 25,000 acres of farmland in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties through conservation easements. It owns property adjoining the site of the test well, the Cemex industrial site, and has two wells in the area. The president of the Ag Land Trust is lawyer Aaron Johnson and other key board members include grower David Gill, Kellie Morgantini of Legal Services for Seniors, managing director Stewart Darlington, former county ag director Richard Nutter, and lawyer Marc del Piero, a former Monterey County supervisor and frequent critic of Cal Am. To a large degree, the trust represents the interests of both environmentalists and Salinas Valley agriculture, which is opposed to any infringement on its right to water from the Salinas Valley aquifer. Reconciling the needs of the water-short Peninsula with Salinas Valley interests has been a balancing act that Cal Am hasn’t yet accomplished.

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Cal Am lawyer Anthony Lombardo

The test well would be drilled at the Cemex property and slanted toward the ocean so it would draw in a mixture of sea water and fresh water to help determine the desalination plant’s potential impact of marine life, area groundwater and seawater intrusion. If the plant proceeds at that location, the well would become one of the main intakes.

Though a test well might seem to be a minor part of a large endeavor, the $400 million-plus desalination project, getting it approved has proved to be a major obstacle for Cal Am.

For political purposes, the location is an unfortunate one for Cal Am. While Cal Am serves most of the Monterey Peninsula, the Marina area is served by the Marina Coast Water District. Not only does Marina Coast have little to gain from a desalination plant in it jurisdiction, it was a partner with Cal Am and Monterey County in the storied failure of a previous attempt to build a desalination plant. Marina Coast is now locked in litigation with Cal Am and the county over millions in unrecovered costs from the earlier project and the responsibility for millions of dollars in unpaid bills. Trial testimony in that litigation ended earlier this month and the parties are awaiting an initial ruling. Cal Am supporters have suggested privately that Marina Coast filed the action over the test well to help pressure Cal Am to settle the financial litigation.

In pursuit of the test well, Cal Am originally sought a permit from the city of Marina but the City Council, closely allied with the Marina Coast Water District’s board of directors, turned it down on grounds that it had not been subjected to a required environmental impact study.

Cal Am appealed the denial to the Coastal Commission, which overturned the Marina council.

Friday’s filing by the Ag Land Trust contends the Coastal Commission did not perform a satisfactory environmental review and did not consider the potential impacts on the groundwater or other wells in the area.

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Cal Am and critics are fighting hard over a hole in the sand

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The Cemex sand-mining operation along Monterey Bay north of Marina, which is where Cal Am wants to drill a desalination test well.

During the political campaigning that ended with last week’s election, Democratic Congressman Sam Farr did something unusual. In the race for two seats on the Marina City Council, he endorsed strongly conservative Nancy Amadeo and registered independent Dan Devlin Jr. instead of Democratic incumbent Dave Brown.

Farr’s explanation was straightforward. He was punishing Brown for not voting to let Cal Am Water drill a desalination test well in the Marina sand dunes.

In an email, Farr explained, “I support friends. I support (Mayor Bruce Delgado) and Nancy because they supported the rest of the Peninsula’s effort to solve the water issue. I thought the blockage (the majority vote against the permit) was selfish and punitive.”

Farr’s choice helps illustrate how much energy and politicking is going into the unresolved issue of whether Cal Am should be allowed to proceed with a test well. Ultimately, it’s about a lot more than a simple well, of course. It is the latest in a series of increasingly testy fights between the Cal Am camp, which includes the hospitality industry and other business interests, and Cal Am’s detractors, which include many area environmental activists and others who worry what an expensive desalination plant is going to do to the already high cost of water locally.

Cal Am has been trying for most of this year to move ahead with a plan to drill a test well to help determine whether the Cemex sand mining property on the Marina shoreline is a feasible location for the desalination plant it hopes to build to help solve the Peninsula’s water shortage. In essence, the plan is to drill a well slightly inland from the ocean to draw seawater and some fresh groundwater and determine whether the sand can serve as a filter to prevent the intake of sea life.

Engineers also want to see how much fresh water would be drawn into the well, an issue of grave concern to neighboring property owners and others with rights to the Salinas Valley aquifer, which reaches to Marina and beyond. If things go well, the well could be converted to a production well for the actual desalination plant.

Rather than granting a permit, however, the majority of the Marina City Council voted to require an environmental impact report, which would add many months to the desalination project. The council members say they were only protecting the environment and state environmental laws that require EIRs for projects that create the potential for significant harm. In an appeal to the California Coastal Commission, Cal Am and its cohorts say the issue is the economic health of the Peninsula, which they say easily trumps the environmental niceties.

The issue goes to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors Tuesday Nov. 11 for an advisory vote and then to the Coastal Commission the next day for a possible vote on a motion to overturn the city of Marina and allow Cal Am to proceed. Under tremendous political pressure to permit the testing, the commission is likely to say yes, but don’t expect it to end there. Much of the opposition input is written like legal briefs, so the two sides are likely to see each other in court.

Here, the Partisan will try to explain what’s happening, a task that will tax our analytical skills to the max. It might take a while, so you might want to take a seat.

BACKGROUND

As most everyone knows by now, the state Water Resources Board has issued an order requiring the Peninsula to reduce its reliance on the threatened Carmel River starting in 2016. After Plans A, B and C fell through, the only real plan in place now involves construction of a desalination plant along with a handful of supplemental projects, including additional wastewater reclamation.

Unfortunately for all, the process has been compromised by petty corruption, politics of all sorts, litigation and bureaucratic dilly-dallying. It became obvious long ago that there is no chance of meeting the state’s deadline, which is why an assortment of Peninsula bigwigs is preparing to descend on Sacramento later this month to beg for mercy and time. The state agency is fully empowered to require deep reductions in water usage, and the water-reliant hospitality industry is in near-panic mode.

Well testing is expected to take more than two years, once it gets started, and actual construction of the desalination plant couldn’t begin until completion of an arduous regulatory process and additional engineering work. Even so, Cal Am and the area officials hope to obtain the well-drilling permit as a signal to the state that progress is, at long last, being made.

THE VOTE

After a series of delays, Cal Am’s permit application finally went to the Marina City Council for a vote on Sept. 4. The issue put the council in an unusual position. Most city governments in the area are solidly behind Cal Am’s desalination plan because their jurisdictions are running short on water and political leaders are worried about the economic impact of a severe water cutback. Marina isn’t served by Cal Am, however. It has its own water district, the Marina Coast Water District and would not be directly affected by the state cutback order.

Making things more complicated, the Marina Coast Water District was a partner with Cal Am and Monterey County in an earlier incarnation of a desalination project. That venture fell apart, but Marina Coast Water District believes Cal Am still owes it some big money from that failed effort. Not so incidentally, trial over that dispute is scheduled to begin Dec. 1 in San Francisco.

Also not so incidentally, the City Council majority in Marina is politically compatible with the majority of the Marina Coast board, so Cal Am wasn’t as warmly received in Marina as it might have hoped. When Cal Am and its supporters in the hospitality industry complain about obstructionists and those who would destroy the Peninsula’s economy, Marina officials don’t quiver the way their counterparts in Monterey, Seaside or Carmel might.

RATIONALE

Anybody who is anybody in the world of water testified before the Marina council. Cal Am argued that there was no reason not to proceed. Time’s a’wasting, the company emphasized. Representatives of the hospitality industry, who had pressured employees to attend, warned of dire economic consequences if the vote went the wrong way. Cal Am critics argued that Cal Am and the industry have made an unholy alliance with hotel officials supporting Cal Am in exchange for a sweetheart arrangement on water rates.

The meeting went on forever.

In the end, the Marina council voted 3-2 to require that Cal Am perform an environmental impact report before proceeding with the test well.  Council members said they were concerned primarily about the well’s potential impact on the surrounding groundwater in the Salinas Valley aquifer. They also were concerned about whether the pumping would violate the water rights of other property owners.

The technical grounds for the decision are important now for legal reasons. The council members in the majority—David Brown, Frank O’Connell, and Gail Norton—said they felt compelled to vote as they did no matter how they felt about the desalination plant and the threat of economic harm to the community. Clearly, they said, pumping a large amount of water along the shoreline could have significant environmental impacts, so the law requires full exploration of the potentials.

Councilman Brown won re-election last week despite falling into disfavor with Farr. He explained the thinking in a subsequent email to Farr. He noted that the other two lawyers on the council agreed with his analysis:

“First, I did not vote against desal, or desal in Marina. I simply voted to require an EIR. Second, our CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) attorney explained the matter as somewhat analogous to a motion for summary judgment, namely if there is opposing environmental evidence on both sides of the issue, from experts, as to the possibility of environmental harm to Marina’s 180-foot aquifer, we don’t weigh the evidence, we simply note the conflict and then require an EIR.

“There was expert testimony from engineer Brian Lee of (Marina Coast Water District) of such harm. I viewed the matter as more of a legal one than anything else, and as an attorney I felt I had to respect that process . . . . You may recall that a few months earlier, I voted to approve (in a 3-2 vote) Cal Am’s bid to drill temporary boreholes at the Cemex plant, for water-quality testing. I voted that way because it was clear there would be no significant environmental impact.”

APPEAL PROCESS

Cal Am quickly appealed to the Coastal Commission, which has the power to overturn local jurisdictions in cases involving significant public works projects.

The commission staff is recommending that the commission grant the test well permit. The staff’s legal argument is largely that the City Council did not properly document its position in the context of the city’s coastal protection plan as approved by the commission and that the overriding issue, the Peninsula’s water supply, is more important than an EIR.

The staff found that alternative locations for the test well and the desalination plant itself are more environmentally vulnerable than the already developed Cemex site. The staff also found that the public interest compels approval of the test well because progress on the project is necessary in order for the Peninsula to eventually abide by the state’s water cutback order.

The staff did concur with the City Council in places. It said the test well plan is inconsistent with the city- and commission-approved coastal habitat protection plan and that numerous requirements should be attached to the permit to assure that Cal Am protects the site to the greatest extent possible and is responsible for eventual cleanup.

One thing that is curious about the staff report is that it keys on the city’s rationale for essentially denying the permit but does not include a full transcript of the city proceedings.

Tom Moore, chairman of the Marina Coast Water District board, pointd that out in a note to the district engineer.

“Someone brought to my attention the fact that it appears as though the Coastal Commission staff has redacted more than 200 pages from the City of Marina’s transcript of the slant well hearings before the City Council in September.  The online staff report to the Coastal Commissioners on this item for Wednesday’s meeting contains less than 40 of the more than 300 pages of the transcript.”

After listing the missing pages, Moore continued, “I have to say that this boggles my mind.  Who authorized such an extensive redaction, one that prevents the Coastal Commissioners and the public from understanding the entirety of the proceedings that were held before Marina City Council.”

PRO AND CON

Presumably, correspondence on the issue was flowing into the commission in the past weeks. Farr, among others, wrote a letter strongly supporting the permitting of a test well.

Among those writing letters in opposition was the Ag Land Trust, which owns rights to Salinas Valley aquifer water in the area.

“The Coastal Commission, if it follows (the staff’s) wrongful advice, will be taking an ‘ultra viras’ (beyond its power) act and approving an illegal test well which violates CEQA, which fails to address the cumulative adverse impacts of the project as a whole and which will result in an unlawful ‘taking’ of groundwater rights from the Ag Land Trust and other rights holders.”

The Ag Land Trust letter was signed by former county Supervisor Marc Del Piero, a lawyer who has specialized in water, and Richard Nutter, retired Monterey County ag commission

The trust said it owns extensive groundwater rights in the area, including on property adjacent to the Cemex property, and that Cal Am has not produced any evidence that it has any rights to groundwater that would be pumped along with seawater. In its 11-page letter, the trust also said the test well would violate numerous provisions of the Marina coastal plan as approved by the commission and not just the habitat provision cited by the staff.

“The Ag Land Trust understands that there is a water shortage on the Monterey Peninsula. We have not caused nor have we contributed to that problem. It has gone on for decades . . . . The water shortage that is of Cal Am making, by its failure to produce a water supply project in over 20 years, does not justify the commission staff’s proposed illegal taking of our groundwater and property rights and the intentional contamination of our potable aquifers and wells for the sold and private economic benefit of Cal Am.”

So there you have it. Important stuff. And, as always, the Partisan would like to know what you think. You can leave a comment below.

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