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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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Thief stealing from handbag of a woman.This probably will not surprise you. The people who are supposed to be in charge of solving the Monterey Peninsula’s water crisis have elected to go into some hugely important negotiations with state water regulators under the cloak of secrecy.

Apparently they have forgotten, once again, that secrecy is one of the main reasons the Peninsula is still in a water crisis. Let one lawyer find an excuse for secrecy and the people who are supposed to be representing the public interest in this big and expensive water mess will cheerfully exclude the public from the conversation and then act as though they had no choice.

One possibility is that officials of California American Water, the Peninsula mayors and others simply believe that their jobs will be easier without the muss and fuss that the public is so capable of producing.

A more ominous and more likely explanation is that they fear the results will not be heavily weighted in favor of Cal Am and others such as the hospitality industry, which speaks with a loud voice when it counsels the mayors and other officials both elected and appointed.

This time, the secrecy has been wrapped around details of a proposal that was advanced to the state last month. It advocates a relaxation of the state-imposed timeline for cutting back on the amount of water that Cal Am pumps from the Carmel River each year.

In order to force the Peninsula to stop degrading the river, the state set a series of deadlines and pumping limits that, if they go into effect, would devastate the Peninsula’s economy. The negotiations that are likely to begin this summer between local interests and the state are of utmost importance to everyone on the Peninsula – and by everyone, we’re talking about everyone, not just those who take lunch regularly with lawyers and lobbyists.

An article in the Monterey Herald on Saturday has Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett assuring us that there will be plenty of time for public involvement later, after local officialdom has hammered out a tentative agreement with the state. There will be public hearings, Burnett said, suggesting that public officials pay attention to what the public says at public hearings after the powers that be have reached consensus.

Even by the standards of Cal Am and its elected accomplices, this decision to keep the public in the dark rests on exceedingly flimsy grounds. Once upon a time there was a lawsuit challenging the state’s right to order a cutback on Carmel River pumping. The suit was suspended three years ago, but lawyers for the state determined that details of the current proposal are exempt from disclosure because of that litigation. Among the many problems with that position is a lawsuit suspended three years ago is, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Another is that lawyers for the state are not decision-makers. They are supposed to give advice. If members of the state water board want to tell the citizens of the Peninsula to pound sand, let them come out and tell us why.

As a direct result of the state’s cutback order, Cal Am has embarked on two major efforts to build a desalination plant, the most expensive solution but a solution. The first effort emerged from more than a year of secret discussions involving the state Public Utilities Commission, Cal Am, Monterey County government, UC Santa Cruz, and the Marina Coast Water District. It was to be a desalination plant operated by Cal Am and Marina Coast, a small, essentially dysfunctional water agency with no real connection to Peninsula issues. Monterey County government, which prefers to operate in smoky back rooms, brought almost nothing to the table but managed to inject secret side deals into the project, sabotaging the venture early on.

Perhaps the officials thought that secrecy would result in some efficiencies and a streamlined, feasible project. Instead, they got themselves an exploding cigar. If they had brought the public in from the start rather than waiting until the cigar was being lit, someone might have shown them that the design was flawed.

That farce cost Cal Am five or six years worth of progress toward a water solution and all-but destroyed the public’s faith in the company’s ability to get the job done. Already, Cal Am is lobbying the state to allow it to charge its customers, not its shareholders, for the cost of the huge fines that will be imposed if the deadlines are not met.

One of the biggest problems with the first desalination effort also afflicts the current one, though to a slightly lesser extent. The first time around, no one was in charge. Technically, the Public Utilities Commission was the “lead agency,” then as now. But the PUC is a regulatory bureaucracy, not a utility, not a construction company. It doesn’t employ engineers or hydrologists. Cal Am was sort of in charge, then and now, but it had no real reason to lead because it makes money no matter what. For regulated utilities, failure is just as profitable as success and sometimes more so. When state rules essentially allow it to collect all its costs plus a 10 percent profit, two failed projects are likely to be more lucrative than one successful one.

Marina Coast wasn’t in charge and Monterey County certainly wasn’t in charge. But if the structure of the first project had been presented to the public from the start rather than as an afterthought, someone might have noticed the absence of meaningful leadership. In the public arena or in private enterprise, things usually don’t get done unless someone’s career will rise or fall depending on the result. The first effort failed largely because the public was never a partner and no one was accountable. The public sector culprits got re-elected. The private sector culprits got bonuses.

The structure of the current effort is less complicated. Neither Marina Coast nor the county is involved, but a committee of Peninsula mayors has stepped forward to take their place. Burnett, the Carmel mayor, took a lead role in creating that relationship and deserves serious credit for doing so. He saw how lack of leadership and accountability helped kill the first attempt, so he stepped up, tying his own considerable political ambitions to the venture. He has been a real help, creating a financial structure that would save the public tens of millions of dollars if the project ever is completed, but he has paid a price. His efforts have alienated Cal Am critics and slow-growthers who see a desalination plant as a growth inducer.

Unfortunately, Burnett seems to be going along with the cone-of-silence plan this time. He was left to explain it in the Herald article, likely because the others involved were afraid to stick their necks out. Maybe he has simply spent too much time with the others and has been “turned,” the way hostages become dupes of their captors. Hopefully, it is not too late.

In case you’re not getting the drift, Jason, this piece is an attempt to get you to argue against this secrecy routine or to let us know who feels otherwise and why.

What is the benefit of secrecy? Simplicity is the most obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. Information is power, and you can bet that Cal Am is already sharing details of the proposal with its allies – the Hospitality Association and the Carmel River Steelhead Association for starters. That way, those groups can spend the next several months lobbying the state and working with associates in other organizations to join in. That way, those groups will have ample time to study all the charts and formulas and to bend the analysis to their liking.

Almost everyone on the Peninsula would support a relaxation of the state’s deadlines. No one wants to see our economy dry up and blow away. But how many years might be added to the timeline under this proposal? Are there concessions to be made later? Earlier? Are there provisions for cutting supplies to some classes of customers but not others. Cal Am, the PUC and even the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District took part in essentially secret talks two years ago that resulted in a preferential rate structure for area hotels.

If you’re part of an average household on the Peninsula, secrecy is not your friend. It won’t help solve the water problem but it will help Cal Am and its friends at the PUC quietly pick your pocket.

What can you do? Don’t bother calling Cal Am. It stopped paying attention to you years ago. But you can and should call your mayor or your state representatives and tell them you’ve had enough of this nonsense.

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Some stories stand alone. Others aren’t quite long enough to justify all that precious cyber space, so the Partisan hereby initiates “Shorts,” an occasional column about politics, public affairs and whatever else is cooking.

SCORE ONE FOR MILLER

The Bernal for sheriff camp was landing quite a few punches against Sheriff Scott Miller, mostly low blows, but Miller left the Bernal team dazed and confused with a flurry of jabs over the last few days.

For some reason, deputy Bernal’s handlers, led by Brandon “Tricky” Gesicki, thought it would be a good idea to get an endorsement from UFW icon Dolores Huerta even though she is about as popular as mildew among the grape growers and other agriculturalists who are the base of his support. I’m guessing they were hoping to capitalize on an earlier Miller misstep, hiring a retired DEA agent as his campaign spokesman despite the agent’s not-so highly evolved views on immigration and related issues.

Speaking of missteps, the Bernal people breathlessly announced the Huerta endorsement late late week. On Huerta’s behalf, Sen. Bill Monning announced the next day that it was a mistake. And Miller announced Tuesday that he now holds Huerta’s endorsement. Miller is hard to categorize politically but if you look in your neighborhood, you might notice that the Rush Limbaugh listeners on your street aren’t putting up Miller signs.

Gesicki went ballistic over the news coverage, of course. He does that. This time, he accused the media of lying, lying, lying. That’s because Huerta mistakenly said it was Bernal adviser Chris Marohn who had misled her about the candidates. The misleader was actually Bernal adviser Chris Schneider. Late Tuesday, it could not be determined whether Gesicki had calmed down.

 DRAMA IN THE DESERT

In a field of strong Monterey City Council candidates, retired police officer Ed Smith has escaped much notoriety but he has one out-of-town critic who’s hoping to end that. The critic is Dean Gray, who edits a watchdog-oriented website in Desert Hot Springs, the Palm Springs neighbor where Smith worked after leaving the Monterey Police Department.

Starting late last year, Gray’s Desert Vortex News published  several stories critical of Smith for his association with Tony Clarke, the would-be promoter of what was to be the Wellness and World Music Festival in Desert Hot Springs. Here is a link to the most complete article, which he sent to the Partisan over the weekend. Its a safe bet that others in the race are well aware of it by now.

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

The gist is this: While working as a police commander in the desert town–a “well-respected police commander,” Gray wrote at one point—Smith was assigned to assist Clarke, largely because Smith had had considerable experience with large events in Monterey. The city also forwarded $265,000 to Clarke to help with the effort. After Smith retired from the Desert Hot Springs Police Department, he went to work with Clarke to try to finish the job. It turned out, however, that Clarke was not a music promoter as he claimed to be and they only thing he was really good at was spending the city’s money, Gray reported. Smith made presentations on Clarke’s behalf but he told the Partisan this week that he never reached a formal agreement with Clarke and never got paid for his work.

To give some context to it all, Smith noted that Desert Hot Springs is a troubled town, with more than its share of scandal and controversy. It has had eight police chiefs in just 11 years.

“I’m glad to be back in Monterey.”

RILEY RESPONDS TO CAL AM SABER RATTLING

 When California American Water formally accused water activist George Riley of illegally breaching a settlement agreement by speaking up on a key desalination issue, the utility might have figured he would shut up and go away. Cal Am has a kennel full of lawyers and seems to enjoy unleashing them.

But Riley isn’t backing down. In a letter to the company on Monday, he denied breaching anything and made it clear he will continue exploring ways to make the proposed desalination project more effective and less expensive. Here’s the letter: Breach Response

The accusation from Cal Am was that Riley had publicly declared that slant wells are not feasible for the project and that he would attempt to prevent a test of that technology at the Cemex cement plant site near Marina. In one of the several legal proceedings associated with the desal project, Riley was among the folks signing agreements not to disclose this or that. In Riley’s view, the agreement didn’t and doesn’t prevent him from speaking out about his concerns.

(Slant wells are drilled slightly inland but angled so that their intakes are in the sand and stone under ocean water. The design of the intakes is a critical component of each desalination plant as engineers seek to minimize the amount of damage to aquatic life.)

Riley wrote, “I treat your letter as a soft form of a SLAPP suit, intending to intimidate or censor me. You refer to comments before the Mayors Authority and the Water Management District, neither of which are in the permit track for the test well. You did not quote me. You did not summarize my comments. You did not show evidence of the impact of my comments. You have not identified any permit or easement hearing that I even participated in …

“I will continue to look at ways to support a water supply at the lowest possible cost, and on a schedule that meets local needs. And I will continue to seek reasonable discussions of a fast track that may have higher risk and cost, and may have unintended consequences. In my opinion, the pressures of the compressed schedule are driving out rational discussions. This is my focus these days.”

MAYBE THEY WERE TRYING TO SAVE ON LEGAL FEES

Speaking of Cal Am and slant wells, the company spent much of 2014 seeking approval from Marina officials to install a test well at the Cemex cement plant property on the Marina shoreline, but the request was denied. Later, Cal Am acknowledged that it had no formal agreement with Cemex but it is going to court to try to force a Cemex to cooperate.

Here’s an interesting sidenote that might explain how things went sideways. Local land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo has been representing Cal Am in its effort to find a location for the desal plant and I’m told by people who should now that Cemex has been using Lombardo for some time to represent its local interests as well. It’s a Mexican company.

Was Lombardo negotiating with Lombardo? Who knows. Lombardo hasn’t returned my calls in years, including the one I made Monday.

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Clean Drinking Water The water supply drama continues. Key urban and agriculture representatives continue to hammer away at a mutually beneficial agreement for using industrial wastewater. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District continues slowly to fortify a backup plan for a desal source if Cal Am falters. It is working with Deep Water Desal on a plan for desalted ocean water at Moss Landing.

Then there is Cal Am’s desal proposal, using slant wells north of Marina. This project is supported by the Mayors Water Authority, most elected officials, and about 16 other interested parties in a settlement agreement that was filed about 18 months ago with the California Public Utilities Commission. I am one of those parties, but I have always been baffled by Cal Am’s insistence on proceeding with slant wells, inland wells drilled on an angle to take in seawater for desalting. Though the technology is intended to minimize the intake of sea life, it is a novel and risky approach with high costs. Why is Cal Am taking this approach? What strengthens Cal Am’s resolve? There are several angles to the issue:

  • Slant wells for potable desal are not operational anywhere in the United States.  Cal Am claimed in a recent report that they are in use in Europe, but it has failed identify any. There is one extensive test site in Orange County with 14 years of effort and test data, but it is not operational.
  • Cal Am has no new water rights anywhere along our coast, and has not applied for any. However it continues to collect data in the Marina area to bolster its plan for slant wells.
  • It appears that Cal Am will use the data and the local water-supply crisis to justify an argument for a “physical solution” (the idea that practical considerations might bypass existing law). However the state Supreme Court disavowed the physical solution argument in a 2000 decision. Will Cal Am challenge that decision and add litigation costs and delay, thus avoiding the need for obtaining water rights?
  • The environmental impact report for the failed regional desal project praised slant wells as the “environmentally superior alternative.” Thus slant wells give Cal Am the imprimatur of protecting the environment.
  • However there are no state requirements for subsurface intakes (slant wells). Granted two very important state agencies – the State Water Resources Control Board and the Coastal Commission – have expressed preference for slant wells as an environmentally superior option, if feasible. There are not extensive criteria for determining “feasibility,” however. There needs to be some practical limit on the cost and amount of time spent on evaluating feasibility. This is a discretionary and subjective determination. So far, we have left it in the hands of Cal Am.
  • Cal Am has built momentum for slant wells to the point that continued investment will be proposed so as to not waste the prior investment. This is a slippery slope.
  • The city of Santa Cruz studied and rejected slant wells as too complicated and too costly.
  • Cal Am ratepayers have paid the full bill for stranded costs from prior Cal Am failures—totaling about $32 million so far, and with another $20 million on the line in legal proceedings ($15 million to $18 million is at stake in litigation with Marina Coast Water District and $3.4 million is at stake in litigation with Monterey County. Ratepayers will be outraged if another failure leads to more stranded costs on our bills. So far the bill for slant wells is probably under $10 million.
  • The mayors have stated that “failure is not an option” on the desalination front. Is this failure of Cal Am, or failure to obtain a new water supply? These two are not linked, or are they?

So why is Cal Am so determined to go the extra mile for slant wells? The answer is “tuck ins.”

Call Public Water Now paranoid, but we see a connection between this project and the defeat of Measure O, which was meant to lead to public ownership of Cal Am’s local operations. Cal Am spent an enormous amount of money to campaign against the measure — about $2.3 million — to protect its local interest. It proved the point that Public Water Now has been making, that the Monterey Peninsula is a cash cow for Cal Am and its parent company, American Water Works.

Public Water Now recently connected the dots with language from Cal Am’s corporate holding company, American Water Works. Its 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission for 2013 describes the corporate growth strategy to be “tuck ins.”

“Growth of service providers in the investor-owned regulated utility sector is achieved through organic growth within a franchise area, the provision of bulk water services to other community water systems and/or acquisitions, including small water and wastewater systems, typically serving fewer than 10,000 customers that are in close geographic proximity to already established regulated operations, which we herein refer to as “tuck ins.”

—American Water Works 10-K filing with SEC for 2013, page 4.

This national corporate growth policy called “tuck ins,” further documented in other SEC filings, is intended to establish water supply ownership/control/dominance in smaller communities as a prelude to serving the growth potential of that community. PWN contends that Cal Am is overly exuberant for slant wells for one dominant reason: it gives Cal Am a permanent foothold next door to Fort Ord, the Peninsula’s only site of predictable growth in the future.

Now it seems clear why Cal Am is so determined to capture the CEMEX site for slant wells. It is using the fragile justification for slant wells to establish itself in the Fort Ord service area. And do not think its legal battle over the $15 million to $18 million debt of Marina Coast Water District is not playing into this calculus.

This national corporate policy to use “tuck ins” for growth should be a concern to Marina, other Fort Ord interests, and the wider community. It sure will be to ratepayers.

Riley is the managing director of Public Water Now and a longtime advocate for public ownership of water utilities.

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