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Dollarphotoclub_89236926Thanks in part to Partisan reader emails, the California Coastal Commission voted 9-2 on Wednesday to hold a hearing on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors‘ decision to remove affordability requirements on the Moro Cojo Subdivision in North County. In doing so, concerned commissioners cited the need to retain affordable housing, and voted against its own staff recommendation to let the county’s decision stand.

This means that the Board of Supervisors’ Jan. 26 decision to allow 161 affordable Moro Cojo homes to convert to market rate – without replacements – is now void.

As Partisan readers know from a previous piece, the 90-page coastal appeal staff report buried important, relevant information on pages 78-90. Your emails to coastal commissioners, telling them to look at those pages, were successful. The commissioners did look, and absorb those pages, which is probably why they voted against their staff’s recommendation.

A CHISPA-spokesperson submitted a letter claiming that people who want the affordable housing to remain affordable are NIMBYs (not in my back yard people) who don’t want farmworkers living near them. It’s an odd claim, because it’s the “NIMBYs” who were trying to keep the homes affordable so that future farmworkers could also afford them. More than 50 Moro Cojo homeowners attended yesterday’s hearing, many of them Spanish speaking. There was no translator, but the Coastal Commission promised that there would be at the next hearing.

Meanwhile, back at home, the reporter for the local daily who wrote about yesterday’s hearing interviewed CHISPA representatives, but interviewed no one wanting to keep the homes affordable. The article states that “most [Moro Cojo] residents are bound to a roughly 8 percent [interest] rate” on their home payments. That’s another odd claim, since it has never arisen before.

At a future time, probably in January 2017, the Coastal Commission will hold a public hearing to decide if the 161 Moro Cojo homes can be converted to market rate and, if so, whether or not CHISPA needs to replace them on a one-by-one basis. Since replacement value stands at around $48 million, this will be an interesting session.

Because the original Moro Cojo subdivision approval involved the waiving of serious environmental concerns that would have prohibited a market-rate development, the hearing will be starting at the beginning (“de novo”) to consider the matter from the beginning rather than from the point of the Monterey County hearing.

In January, or whenever the Coastal Commission holds its hearing, there will be opportunity for public comment. Stay tuned.

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Brochure says Dana Point mega project was “Inspired by Nature.”

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The Strand at the Headlands, a housing development in Dana Point in Orange County that Dave Potter voted for when he was a member of the California Coastal Commission.

I wasn’t going to write any more about Dave Potter’s re-election bid because we’re so close to Tuesday’s election, but then he sent a provocation to my mailbox. It’s his latest campaign mailer and it has a nice photo on the front of an oceanfront cypress with the words “A delicate balance.” Inside, it says, “As the longest serving government appointee to the California Coastal Commission (1997-2009), Dave led statewide efforts to protect our most precious natural resource from unwise and excessive development.”

Forget that he was removed from the commission after compiling one of the worst environmental records of all the commissioners, according to annual rankings by Surfrider and the Sierra Club. The Carmel Pine Cone reported last week and plans to report again this week that he wasn’t removed, an absolutely incorrect assertion based on then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass’s overly polite comment that she wasn’t even aware of his voting record when she replaced him with a more environmentally friendly appointee. The Pine Cone accuses Adams of lying, and worse, even though Potter publicly acknowledged that “the environmentalists” had arranged for his removal over his objections.

Coincidentally, when Potter’s latest touchy-feely mailer arrived, I was contemplating a piece of my own, updating Potter’s yes vote on one of the most controversial Southern California development projects of his Coastal Commission tenure. I had been leaning toward letting it go, lest it be suggested that the Partisan has already made the case against his re-election and was piling on. But then I saw that cypress tree and read about how Potter has been “Guarding Our Coastline.”

Potter’s time on the Coastal Commission provided him with a great opportunity to become cozy with development interests up and down the state while portraying himself as a conservationist at home, a pretense he has partly abandoned in recent years. While casting token anti-development votes here, he routinely voted in favor of controversial development projects large and small along the coast. It was during one Los Angeles County application process that he met and became friends with horse-racing promoter Brian Boudreau, who brought his controversial Monterey Downs racetrack venture to Monterey County at Potter’s invitation.

But possibly the most controversial project of Potter’s time on the commission was the Dana Point Headlands project, which allowed a string of monster homes to be built on the sand over the super-strenous objections of just about everyone except the developer. Remarkably, while Potter’s commission vote in favor of the venture came a dozen years ago, he is still enjoying the benefits.

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Photo of Headlands homes from Sanford Edwards’ website

The Headlands developer, Sanford Edward, early this year contributed $1,000 to Potter’s campaign against challenger Mary Adams for his 5th District seat. And one of the first millionaires to build a monster home there, David Demshur, contributed $2,000 just last month.

Here is what the Sierra Club said about the Headlands venture after the vote:

“The project violates the Coastal Act in that it calls for severe grading in the coastal zone and construction of a 2200-foot-long rock pile revetment/seawall to support about 70 custom lots on Strands bluff. Even the Coastal Commission’s own staff’s reports strongly recommended denial of this project based on its multiple Coastal Act violations.

If granted, the preliminary injunction would have halted construction on the Headlands project until the lawsuit came to trial, several months later.

In late June, Sierra Club and Surfrider assessed the situation. Without the preliminary injunction, construction on the site would continue until the trial; even if the environmentalists won at trial, undoing of the development work would be unlikely. The need to put resources into the much larger toll road/Trestles campaign loomed large. The groups reached regretful consensus to end the Headlands campaign.

Sierra Club National Litigation Committee approved dismissal of the suit in mid-September. Surfrider Foundation has also voted to approve dismissal.

The development is now in full swing. An outing to Strands Beach is now marred by the sight of heavy-duty construction machinery working on the bluff. The once-peaceful bluff has been cleared of all vegetation and looks like it has been strip-mined.

The Coastal Commission’s approval of the project has not only destroyed the natural beauty that once was Strands bluff, but also set a bad precedent for other coastal development projects throughout California.”

(A previous Partisan post misstated Potter’s vote based on erroneous information in a Los Angeles Times account.)

Demshur’s 10,000-square-foot home at the Dana Point development has received considerable publicity for its design. Incidentally, his primary residence is on a golf course in Houston, where he is the head of Core Laboratories, which is heavily involved in oil fracking. The Partisan’s mention of his fracking work May 12 prompted Potter to return his $2,000 contribution the next day. However, Potter had previously collected what is likely to have been considerably more from Demshur. The supervisor’s statement of economic interests for 2015 says his Potter Construction Co. received something in excess of $100,000 that year from Demshur and two companies, Enviro International and Ocean Breeze Construction. Specific dollar amounts and details of the work are not included on the forms and Potter did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Enviro International is operated by Safwat Malek, the Pebble Beach architect who is currently involved in a Carmel home-building project with Potter. It is likely that Ocean Breeze Construction is actually Ocean Breeze Quality Building in Carmel.

Coincidentally or not, both Edwards and Demshur now have business in front of Monterey County government. Edwards several years ago bought what used to be known as the Oreck estate on the 12th Fairway at Pebble Beach along with an adjoining lot. He demolished the 1924-era Oreck house and replaced it with a home for himself. He sold the other lot in 2012 to Demshur for $14 million but building plans have not yet been approved by the county. Edwards or someone working for him was cited by the county for demolishing the Oreck house without a permit but he was later able to clear that up, according to county records.

Potter Consruction Co., meanwhile, seems to have taken on a life of its own. Early in Potter’s tenure as supervisor, starting 20 years ago, it was a fairly active little operation specializing in cement work. It ran into financial problems, however, and soon was the subject of several mechanics liens from suppliers who had not been paid. Through the middle years of Potter’s supervisorial career, he said the company was inactive, though it maintained an office, and only in recent years has it come back to life. He said a month ago that it is largely operated by two subcontractors and requires little of his time. State records indicate the company has no employees.

Earlier this year Potter Construction was listed as the builder for renovations being done on Potter’s own home in Carmel and it is currently listed as the general contractor on the construction of a new, Safwat Malek-designed home at 6th and Dolores in Carmel.

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Hand holding out a stack of money tied to the end of a stick for briberyLocal campaign contribution reports over the past week created no new intrigues but Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter had three interesting items to report.

Potter, campaigning to retain his seat in the 5th Supervisorial District, reported returning a $2,000 contribution from David Demshur of Houston, whose Core Laboratories is a big player in the oil fracking industry. Potter’s latest campaign filing says the money was returned May 13, the day after the Partisan wrote about the contribution.

With an anti-fracking initiative heading to the November ballot, the candidates are sensitive to any perception of support from the oil industry, but both Potter and his opponent, Mary Adams, have received contributions from South County landowners who could benefit from a fracking boom.

Parker also accepted a $1,000 contribution in April from prominent oil and gas lawyer Lawrence Wolfe of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Potter maintains a big fund-raising lead over Adams thanks to considerable input from both inside and outside the area. Two recent outside contributions that advance the campaign story line: $500 from Chris Bardis and $1,000 from Susan McCabe.

Bardis is a Sacramento attorney who is a big promoter of harness racing and horse racing in general. The Adams campaign has gone after Potter for bringing the Monterey Downs horse racing proposal to Fort Ord and for his behind-the-scenes work to promote the tremendously controversial project.

McCabe is noteworthy because she is the most active and successful lobbyist of the California Coastal Commission, of which Potter was once a member. She almost always represents people or businesses wanting to develop along the shore and she has come under recent scrutiny for her role in removing strong environmentalist Charles Lester from the commission’s leadership position. In his campaign filing, Potter identifies her only as a “self-employed manager.”

In campaign mailings, Adams has made much of Potter’s low rating by environmental groups while he was on the commission, which led to his earlier removal from the commission. He was replaced by Santa Cruz Assemblyman Mark Stone, who has a much better environmental report card.

The Carmel Pine Cone in its last edition attacked Adams with exceptional vigor, claiming she was lying about Potter having been removed from the commission. To support that, the weekly paper interviewed then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who said she had appointed Stone in Potter’s place only because it was time for a change and that she had not even considered Potter’s voting record. The Pine Cone accepted that as gospel, apparently not even considering that Bass was merely reciting the type of lines scripted for such occasions. It is inconceivable that an Assembly speaker would make such an important change without carefully examining the records of the former commissioner and his replacement. Inconceivable to most, that is.

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????They once promised to be the solution to one of desalination’s biggest drawbacks. Most of the world’s 14,000 desalination plants draw seawater directly from the ocean, sucking in varying amounts of sea life. But slant wells, sharply angled in order to pump water from below the ocean floor, would use the sea bed as a natural filter, leaving all the aquatic critters where they belong.

That idea turned into a noble but failed experiment as California American Water began the long and expensive process of building a desalination plant to solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water problem. At the direction of state regulators, including the California Coastal Commission, Cal Am adopted slant wells into the design and for the past several months has been testing one such well at the plant site next to the Cemex facility on the Monterey Bay shore north of Marina.

The testing was delayed because of political opposition, concerns about feasibility and questions about whether the environmental impact of the testing itself had been fully considered. Once it started, it encountered additional delays for technical reasons and the discovery of a glaring conflict of interest. One of key hydrologists involved in the design and execution of the testing turned out to be a patent holder on the technology being tested, calling into question the advice he was giving his employers, both Cal Am and Cal Am’s chief regulator, the Public Utilities Commission, a compound relationship that created yet another conflict.

At one point, the testing was halted because a monitoring well showed that groundwater in the area was dropping significantly. Among the factors being tested is the desalination plant’s impact on area groundwater and, most specifically, an underlying aquifer that extends all the way to the Salinas Valley and supplies much of the water that sustains Salinas Valley agriculture. Though the intent is to draw seawater exclusively, the test well in fact draws a significant amount of its water from the brackish oceanside edge of the aquifer. If the desalination process draws too much water from the aquifer or aggravates the existing issue of seawater intrusion into the fresh water aquifer, the desalination plant’s design and/or location seemingly would be doomed, absent a purely political solution.

According to Cal Am’s declarations to state officials, the testing remains highly inconclusive but the company says it has learned enough from the exercise to plunge ahead into the overall plant approval process and then into the construction phase, which would result in the drilling of an additional nine slant wells. According to water activist George Riley, the company has already started awarding well-drilling contracts despite the absence of any data supporting that decision.

If the plans continue on that track, the Marina plant would be the first in the world to use slant wells. Recent tests of the same technology at a proposed Dana Point plant failed dramatically, taking in as much fresh water as salt water, and operators of a proposed plant at Huntington Beach, also under state pressure to use slant wells, recently announced the technology there to be unfeasible.

Against that backdrop, an array of speakers at a forum sponsored by Public Water Now lined up Tuesday night in Carmel to explain why the slant-well plan should be abandoned in the name of maintaining some semblance of control over the desal costs.

Public Water Now founder George Riley ran out of descriptors as he labeled the slant-well approach “a sham, a hoax, a fraud” because it provides none of the benefits that its supporters promised and carries with it unacceptable costs and complications. The most recent cost estimates show that water from the proposed Cal Am plant would cost more than double the costs expected in either Dana Point or Huntington Beach.

Public Water Now was formed to pursue public ownership of Cal Am, an idea that Monterey voters narrowly rejected a year ago. Riley and the organization support desalination as a solution to the region’s water-supply problem but they argue that the state Public Utilities Commission will be making a huge and expensive mistake if it does not order serious study of alternate, cheaper proposals, the People’s Project and Deepwater Desal, or does not toss out the slant-well approach on grounds of inefficiency and expense.

A partial solution to one of the slant-well technology deficiencies was announced Tuesday, when Cal Am revealed a plan to sell fresh water to the Castroville area. The fresh water to be sold is same fresh water that the slant wells will draw into the desal plant, where it will be processed along with the sea water. That agreement settles one of several potential water rights disputes that Cal Am faces but it is an imperfect solution to a problem that would not exist if the slant wells worked as intended. The volume of freshwater pumped from the aquifer essentially increases the size and cost of the desal plant, an expense borne by Cal Am customers, but Castroville is not expected to pay a commensurate amount.

Among the revealing presentations Tuesday was one by retired mathematician and computer language expert David Beech. He demonstrated how Cal Am has misled the public and even the Coastal Commission by repeatedly suggesting that the test well would extend 1,000 feet into the sand below Monterey Bay. In fact, Beech showed, the drilling angle and the location of the inland wellhead reduce the overall length to just 724 feet and the net effect is that only the final 35 feet of the well are in contact with ocean water.

Most of the water pumped into the desal plant under the current design would come from the freshwater aquifer, Beech and others concluded, which strongly suggests that there is no reason to use expensive slant-well techniques when vertical wells drilled directly into the aquifer would produce approximately the same result. The idea of switching to vertical wells was even endorsed Tuesday night by Paul Bruno, president of Monterey Peninsula Engineering, an aggressive backer of Cal Am’s desalination project. EDITOR’S NOTE: Bruno now denies having said this. He said his comment was that vertical wells would be less expensive than slant wells. 

Another speaker, water activist and retired teacher Michael Baer, complained that Cal Am and its contractors still have not fully tested the potential ramifications on the groundwater despite repeated urging from a hydrologist working for Salinas Valley ag interests.

Ron Weitzman of the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula, another proponent of public ownership and alternate proposals, used computer modeling to demonstrate his assertion that Cal Am has intentionally manipulated its measurements of sea level and groundwater levels in order to make its plans appear logical.

Riley noted that the cost of the testing has risen steadily, adding additional costs to a project that will result in astronomical water bills throughout Cal Am’s local service area. The initial estimate for the testing was $4 million, which rose to $7 million as a result of both avoidable and unavoidable delays. It rose next to $10 million, which doesn’t include the costs of special review by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The overall cost of the plant is now estimated at more than $300 million.

If Cal Am shareholders were responsible for the costs, they would have ended the slant-well experiment long ago in favor of something more efficient and less expensive, Riley insisted. Unfortunately, though, common sense does not prevail when the regulators and the utility know that the costs of every misstep will be passed directly to the water ratepayers.

Riley said there is no longer any question that a desalination plant will be built. A looming cease-and-desist order on the overuse of Carmel River water has created enormous political pressure to find a solution and nothing on the horizon presents meaningful competition to desalination, Riley acknowledged. It is entirely likely, he said, that the various state agencies will approve the overall project even before the environmental impact study for the plant has been completed and before various other water rights issues have been adjudicated.

What is important now, he said, is for Cal Am customers and their elected leaders to persuade state officials to stand up to the momentum and take a long and deep look at the costs of staying on the current path. Both the alternate plant proposals and simpler well technology promise lower costs for the ratepayers, he said, and it is the responsibility of officialdom at the local and state levels to do everything they can to take the sting out of future water bills.

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Businessman chained to a large ballMany knowledgeable people on the Peninsula, including friends and others whose opinions I respect, believe the tarot cards are slowly but surely pointing to an eventual Cal Am demise.   I am reading the cards differently and here is why:

  • There aren’t enough people rising up against Cal Am. Some point to the recent parade of angry ratepayers who spoke publicly before the Cal Am board as a sign of a developing groundswell. That may be true, but in the near and long term, will there ever be the critical mass necessary to accomplish major change? There were people who were angry with the water bill spikes, but that seems now to be ancient history.  A respectable 45 percent of those who voted on Measure O, the Cal Am takeover initiative, clearly opposed Cal Am.  But 45 percent of what number? I recall that the turnout was less than 25 percent of registered voters eligible to vote.  In some cities (e.g., Seaside) the turnout was even smaller. About 11,000 people voted for th measure but Cal Am’s customer base, homes and businesses, numbers some 40,000.

Further, the number of persons who are knowledgeable and willing to be real activists has grown over the past two years, but I would doubt if they currently number more than 500. People join groups like Public Water Now and the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula but only a very few are truly active and committed on a scale necessary to effect change.

Cal Am has conducted polls and surveys that indicate, according to the company’s vice president for communications, most younger people who have been on the Peninsula for five years or less typically rent and have no serious issues with the company.  And while the older “more conservative” long-term locals (his words) are more concerned, he still maintains that the poll/survey results indicate that the number truly opposed and angry is minimal.

A local water activist has stated that future water rates will have a greater impact on ratepayers so that more and more persons will join the fight to oust Cal Am.  Once again, I am not sure.   After the Herald wrote a good article on the “spanking” that the Cal Am board received from so many citizens at its recent public meeting, I contacted Cal Am’s VP and asked for his take.  He said there were definitely things to learn and Cal Am needs to be more intelligent about rate applications and rate structures. Cal Am and this gentleman are not stupid. I interpret his statement as an indication that Cal Am may revise the way it seeks rates, fees and other costs, and may redesign the tier structure in a way that lightens the future impact on the greatest number of ratepayers. If I were a Cal Am senior officer, I would certainly consider such changes

Cal Am’s communications officer also indicated that the company’s overall PR program needs revitalizing – I don’t know what that would include, but it might include greater transparency and more detailed information on current and future plans, which, like it or not, would also tend to simmer down potential opposition.

  • Unless the California Public Utilities Commission process is statutorily corrected to protect ratepayers, Cal Am may well be able to continue as is as long as it can count on three votes on the commission. Correcting the CPUC process is a longshot, because it would be so politically sensitive that few politicians at the state level could be counted on to become involved. I sent a letter to the area’s state legislators and the governor suggesting changes.  I received a response from Assemblyman Mark Stone but no one else, as I expected. Ratepayers will always be on the losing side as long as any utility can put together at least three commissioners on its side in a rate case, and as long as the CPUC’s Office of Ratepayer Advocates is not recreated as an independent state agency with the authority to sue the CPUC on behalf of ratepayers.   Since commissioners are appointed, effecting change in that regard is almost beyond the ken of anyone on the Monterey Peninsula.  Likewise, without the leadership of your elected officials, you won’t get an independent ORA either.   The likely result:  Cal Am will succeed in its rate cases no matter how many people don’t like it.
  • For the sake of argument, assume that a critical mass does exist and there is another Measure O. What then? This is the area in which think not enough analysis and discussion and/or debate has taken place.  If another Measure O were to pass, perhaps a stronger measure calling not only for a study but the outright acquisition of Cal Am, what agency would do it and how? How much would it cost?  Would the new entity’s ratepayers be protected from future rate hikes?  Would they be assured that their input would be heeded?  Would Cal Am give up and sell out?

A simple review of existing public agencies does not result in terribly positive answers to those questions.

There is some thought that some Peninsula cities would form a joint powers agency to take over Cal Am. But this isn’t small-town Felton, where a takeover did occur. There are six cities on the Peninsula, with no real history of working together for a common goal. Who would be on the board of such a partnership?  Some of the same people who have turned the mayor’s joint powers agency into a money-spending waste of time?

Some say the water district could take the lead. It has the statutory authority and perhaps even the staff to undertake the responsibilities of Cal Am (and could presumably hire ex-Cal Am employees to bolster its capabilities).  However, as we all know the district has not been successful on many fronts, even when it did take the initiative to increase the Peninsula’s water supply. A further problem is that the board’s membership includes two appointed officials, one from the cities, and one from the county. Those individuals, no matter how good-hearted and well-intentioned, come to the board with built-in conflicts and with other issues to distract them from solely water issues.   In order for the district to actually perform in the best possible manner, both of those appointees would have to be replaced by two additional electees, from two newly formed districts. Of course, this couldn’t be accomplished without statutory correction, and the same hurdles against changing the CPUC are in place against reforming the district.

So what is left?  Create a new JPA? JPAs in Monterey County (e.g., FORA) are rife with dissension. Name me a JPA that would clearly be successful.

Consider other agencies, such as the Moss Landing Harbor District or the Marina Coast Water District. Think of the difficulties in bringing together Marina and Peninsula interests that have never been in sync.   Another suggested option would be public ownership contracting out to a private enterprise to build, operate and deliver water to the Peninsula.  Problem is: what agency or what entity could or would represent the public and who would own the water system?   Further, such a contract would require policy decisions, oversight and funding on behalf of the public owners. That brings us back to reviewing the possible government agencies that could do it, which already seems to lead to the end of a cul-de-sac.

  • What about the possibilities of a current private desal project encouraging a local city to form a JPA which, in turn, would acquire the project’s assets and hire private firms to build and operate the desal plant?   In fact, local water activists are in the process of encouraging the city of Monterey to create a new JPA to acquire Nader Agha’s Peoples’ Desal Project at Moss Landing, which is actually ahead of Cal Am in a schedule to obtain permitting and begin construction. Once created, the JPA, representing public ownership, would hire consultants to build and operate the system.  The question remains, however:  a “JPA (Joint Powers Authority)” by its very nature, is a collaboration created by an agreement between two or more government agencies. So, what “other agencies” would agree to participate, and what are the realistic expectations that such an animal, if ever created, would be any different than what we have historically seen?   I hope it can happen, but a seachange in local political collaboration, creativity, initiative and commitment would have to arise where it never has before.  I know and admire my friends who are involved in this effort, and if anyone can, they can.  So God bless – prayers will be required.
  •   Finally, Cal-Am has a lot of money, is determined to remain on the Peninsula because it has been an outstanding revenue source. What does that mean?   For one, the company will almost certainly fight an eminent domain action.  They will not sell. They are not afraid of litigation. They say they care about ratepayer’s concerns, and they will probably take steps to actually go in that direction, but in the end, a good ROI (Return on Investment) trumps everything.

I am running out of options.   I have always supported public water as a concept, but have never had to sit down and figure out if it were handed to me how would I implement it in the best interests of the public. It is not necessarily as inevitable nor as straightforward as some would make out. In spite of all the delays, mismanagement, conflict of interests, data manipulation (as alleged), and so on, Cal Am is still afloat, the CPUC and Coastal Commission have not kicked them out and have barely slapped their hands. My take is a gloomy, negative one, for sure.   But even though I am a public water advocate, I have come to believe that facts and history unfortunately suggest that any grass-root attempt to right all the wrongs is facing great odds.

Bill Hood is a retired water resources engineer and attorney and executive director of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. He lives in Carmel and Columbus, Ohio.

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It was an interesting piece in the Monterey Herald on Thursday, the one headlined “Cal Am makes slant well counteroffer.” It was about Cal Am saying it will eat the costs of the slant well technology if it proves not to work well enough to be incorporated into the proposed desalination plant, but it won’t absorb the costs if the technology doesn’t receive the permits it needs to operate. That’s interesting enough, but there was something else at least equally interesting.

Reporter Jim Johnson’s article quotes from a letter written by Cal Am President Rob MacLean in which he says that obtaining the necessary permits for the test slant well is “complex and requires a tremendous amount of community and political cooperation and support.”

I could be simply misunderstanding the whole thing here, but that line left me confused. The permitting process MacLean is presumably talking involves the regulatory agencies, such as the Public Utilities Commission, the Coastal Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others responsible for oversight, generally involving technical, environmental or financial matters.

To my way of thinking, none of that should be affected one way or another by “a tremendous amount of community and political cooperation and support.” Cooperation between the various agencies? A good thing to be sure but not a decisive thing. Community cooperation and support? Also a fine thing, sure, but it isn’t part of any official regulatory equation that I’m familiar with.

I propose we crowd-source this. I haven’t asked MacLean to explain because I was scratched off the Cal Am Christmas card list long ago. Maybe someone who still has a  working relationship with the utility can put the question to him on behalf of those of us watching from the cheap seats. And maybe someone who understands regulatory process better than I do can offer an explanation.

If taken at face value, MacLean’s comment could go a long way toward explaining why this whole desalination process is so difficult and perplexing. Perhaps rather than trying to get the science and technology right, Cal Am has devoted the bulk of its attention to attempting to build “a tremendous amount of community and political cooperation and support” regardless of what is happening on the engineering side of the operation. If that’s what has been happening, considering the company’s stumbles in each of the arenas, we all should be installing cisterns.

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The following is my Aug. 7 letter to the California Coastal Commission’s executive director, Charles F. Lester, regarding the Cal Am test well:

Dear Mr. Lester,

Public Water Now (PWN) is the group that discovered the patents owned by Dennis Williams and Geoscience. PWN alerted the public about potential conflicts of interest. PWN is also the group that has harped on the phrase issued by the State Water Resources Control Board about pursuing subsurface intakes, “if feasible,” prior to pursuing other options.

I am writing to alert you to related issues that I hope you consider in the review of an amended permit for Cal Am, and the follow up monitoring and evaluation of data and circumstances re this test slant well.

PWN is well aware of the desire by you, the State Water Resources Control Board, California Public Utilities Commission, and others in the state that want a successful subsurface intake for desal facilities. PWN is also aware of the environmental reasons, and we do not disagree.

But PWN strongly objects to several factors that are in play, and you have a role in considering them.

How does the CCC remain objective and focused on the facts when it has a obvious public policy to support subsurface intake? PWN questions the depth of objectivity CCC will bring if the overlying policy goal is a successful subsurface intake for desal. Will CCC go the extra mile to guarantee its objectivity and interest in validated data and analysis? Is the CCC open to looking beyond the face value of the data it receives?

The patent royalty relationship between Dennis Williams/Geoscience and the driller –Boart Longyear – has not been queried. Is it possible that substantive financial relationships exist between these two that could cause the data to be skewed to serve ulterior motives? Will CCC look into the contract relationship between Williams and Boart Longyear? Will CCC determine there are no royalty and shared self interests in the contracts or in the actual test well operations that could skew their reports?

Will CCC question the financial relationship of these key sources of data and opinion?

PWN has felt for some time that the specific test period got cavalier treatment by the CCC. I made this very point at your hearing in November 2014 on the initial permit. Since slant wells are not in use anywhere in the world, how can CCC not absolutely insist on a valid test period? Not knowing what is a valid period, surely sophisticated professional attention is required. What is a valid test period? Will CCC opine on this? Will CCC prescribe a valid duration for the test period?

The only known subsurface intakes for desal have occurred in California – Dana Point and Sand City.

1) Dana Point results after 18 months of test slant well pumping are these: no conclusions on viability; some sand infiltration problems; and pumping efficiency declined from over 90% to about 55% over 18 months.

2) The data from the Sand City vertical subsurface wells for a small 300 acre foot/year plant shows actual pumping efficiency over 4 year of operation to be in serious decline:

From Sand City Public Works, calendar year:

  • 2011 96.8%
  • 2012 69.6%
  • 2013 64.8%
  • 2014 60.8%

From Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, water year

  • 2011 91.9%
  • 2012 80.7%
  • 2013 62.3%
  • 2014 59.5%

This data on Sand City tells a very negative tale about reliability, and therefore viability. Why does pumping efficiency with subsurface intake decline so significantly over a few years? Dana Point and Sand City data clearly make this point! Has the CCC considered this? This is why a valid test period is critical. Experience so far does not dictate a “full speed ahead” mentality. In fact it screams out for caution. And to be skeptical about any optimism about short term data. The telling will be in the testing, and in the duration, not the first data available.

Will CCC require a legitimate test period of two years or more? Remember, Cal Am originally proposed a two year test period. But with unexplained lower performance at Sand City, is two years adequate?

Every diagram example in all sources describe slant wells as penetrating far enough under the sea floor to extract water from beneath the sea floor. The intent is clear – to avoid aquifer interference, and perhaps to avoid related water rights claims. But the Cal Am test well does not penetrate the vertical line at the mean high tide line. It stops landward of that line. Would this “test well” meet your normal standard for a test of under sea floor intake? The fact that it did not extend under the sea floor area should raise questions about design or engineering?

Was the drilling length too risky or difficult? Was the drilling capacity limited in some way? Is this an issue for feasibility? Was the design under the patents too limiting? Should horizontal directional drilling still be an option? Are there more experiments that should take place? Did the insistence on the removable casings create engineering demands that were excessive? Could the guidelines from the State Water Board have established too high a level of outcome that was too expensive for success? The fact of a shorter test well length than intended (by the proponent, the patent holder and the public promotion) must get questioned regarding its use as a “test”?

Furthermore the plan of Cal Am to proceed directly from a short test period into a development permit for nine production wells makes a farce of all the publicity about the “test well” being a legitimate test well! The plan of Cal Am is based on assumptions, not tests. There are enough questions about long term performance reliability and cost acceptability that should ring alarm bells at the CCC, and elsewhere.

Working out the details and the costs of this experiment should not fall on the ratepayers. This is a state-sponsored requirement, and should have significant state funding. I doubt you have access to funding assistance. At least you might acknowledge the unfairness of the state, and the corporate utility, foisting this unproven and little scrutinized experiment on ratepayers.

The CCC, having jurisdiction over the efficacy of slant well impacts, and having a deep interest in the long term success of subsurface intakes, should have a particular interest in seeing that it is done right. This is too new for the CCC to feel comfort in self-interested promoters and contractors.

Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

If there is to be a successful test, there must be conscientious and professional attention to the fact that slant wells have never been successfully constructed and become operational anywhere in the world.

Costs can become astronomical, and should not fall exclusively on local ratepayers. State resources must be made available, since it is a policy goal of several state agencies for subsurface intakes. And the facts of declining pumping efficiency should also raise alarms.

We sincerely hope you will take these issues into account during deliberations and analysis of Cal Am’s amended permit.

Respectfully,

 

George T. Riley
Managing Director
Public Water Now

Emailed to: tom.luster

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????Two items in the Pine Cone today could not help but pique my curiosity. Perhaps the Partisan readers can join me in asking the Mayors’ Authority and the Pine Cone a few questions to ask their interviewees the next time they discuss water projects with them:

1. Cal Am will now miss the August Coastal Commission meeting, and is shooting for September. Fair enough, but how does the conflict of interest investigation by the Public Utilities Commission enter into the discussion regarding restarting a well that relies upon audit results of the person being investigated?

2. Deep Water Desal has announced that it can have desalinated water produced for distribution by Fall 2017. They have not yet even started the EIR process, in fact, their public partner, the California Lands Commission, has not even started the process of obtaining a consultant. The Moss Landing Harbor District has been very clear that Deep Water’s plan to punch a hole under Highway 1 and under the Harbor District’s property is a non-starter. So, Deep Water, how do you plan such an aggressive schedule when you do not currently possess an intake option for your 25 MGD (25 million gallons per day) plant?

Steve Collins is an accountant and former chairman of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency board of directors. He helped lead the county’s efforts to develop a desalination plant in partnership with Cal Am and was prosecuted for a conflict of interest that he maintains was encouraged and approved by top county officials. He has worked as a consultant for Nader Agha, who is pursuing a separate desalination project.

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Cal Am’s latest desal delay is its own damned fault

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For the past couple of years now, California American Water and its various partners have told us that time is of the essence, that its plans for a $400 million-plus desalination plant must proceed at all costs. The threat of a state-ordered cutback on water use looms large, especially over the hospitality industry, the Peninsula’s largest economic driver.

So when environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact of drilling giant wells under the beach, when those of a technical bent worried aloud about the integrity of the pre-construction testing process and the potential impact on groundwater near the plant site, when people concerned about the high cost of mistakes pointed out a glaring conflict of interest among the project team, they were all dismissed as obstructionists.

“They” are trying to stop the project, we were told, though “they” were never really identified. (The working definition of the so-called obsctructionists might be anyone who isn’t being paid to advance the project or doesn’t stand to receive a direct financial benefit.)

Those arguing that state environmental laws should be not be ignored for the convenience of the engineers were called tree huggers or worse, shills for potentially competing projects. Though they have found themselves in an emergency of their own making, Cal Am and its bedfellows argue that there have been too many delays already and rules are meant to be broken if it is in the interest of speed and commerce.

And now comes another significant setback for the project. Ruling Extending EIR Deadline for MPWSP Whose fault? Those damned obstructionists? Not hardly.An administrative law judge for the Public Utilities Commission ruled Thursday that the bureaucratic timetable must be set back three months because one of the key figures in the well-testing process is wearing too many hats. There are things to be sorted out, said an exasperated judge, Gary Weatherford.

Here is today’s Herald story on the ruling.

It seems that Dennis Williams of Geoscience is working for just about everyone involved in the well testing, including both Cal Am and the PUC, and he also holds a patent on the technology being tested. In other words, he was being paid by the PUC and the company preparing the environmental impact report on the project to help test Cal Am’s test wells of his design while also being paid by Cal Am. What could possibly go wrong?

So now expect to be told that this is an unnecessary delay caused by “those who would destroy the project.” But the truth is that this is the fault of those making the decisions on behalf of Cal Am and the Public Utilities Commission. This is not the handiwork of obstructionists. This is another breakdown in the procedure, a result of arrogance.

True, some of those who aren’t big fans of the project did notice the conflict and pointed it out but the powers that be on this project already knew all about it. If they say they didn’t, they will either be lying or admitting to grotesque incompetence. Google Dennis Williams and Geoscience and see how long it takes for you to spot the problem and say, “Oh, my.”

Williams is highly qualified for the work involved and it is entirely possible that he can segregate his functions properly and provide accurate assessments, at least according to his own standards. But that should have been discussed openly by the various parties – including the public – right from the start. Not now, after the media demonstrated that the PUC’s experts couldn’t even find a private well near the test site. Not now, after unexpected decline in groundwater in the area suggests the test well isn’t working as it is supposed to. Now now, after Cal Am’s customers have been put on the hook for some $10 million in testing costs, costs that will come straight out of customers’ pockets no matter how any of this turns out.

It could be that Williams was the best choice for the job and should have been hired. But doing that right would have required putting his various entanglements on the record, and you know what can happen when the public knows too much.

Weatherford’s ruling comes just a week at the Coastal Commission ruled that Cal Am needs to do some more work on its well testing program, which begs the question of whether Cal Am could have accomplished more early on by refining its testing plan rather than scratching and clawing to fast track it through the regulatory processes in the first place.

It could be that under current standards of public works construction, it isn’t possible for a project to be built without compromises of quality, design and process. Maybe there is corruption and self-dealing in every venture beyond some certain financial threshold. Maybe it’s $100 million. Maybe it’s whatever Cal Am’s budget calls for.

From Cal Am’s perspective, Tom Moore fits right into the obstructionist category. He’s on the board of the Marina Coast Water District, which once was a partner in Cal Am’s desal efforts, a partnership that fell apart spectacularly when it came out that a former county water official, Steve Collins, was being paid under the table for consulting work on the project. Now there is litigation and Monterey County and Cal Am and Moore’s district are trying to make each look bad and, for the most part, succeeding.

But Moore is also well positioned to comment on the swirl that the desal venture has become. Here’s his take.

“Given the history of the Regional Desalination Project and what happened to Steve Collins, logic would dictate that Cal Am and the CPUC would carefully vet ALL of their consultants and contractors to ensure there wouldn’t be even the slightest whiff of the appearance of a conflict of interest.  And logic would also dictate that any consultant or contractor thinking about working for either the CPUC or Cal Am on the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, or both in this case, would consult with competent attorneys and disclose, disclose, disclose in order to stay the hell away from even a remote possibility of a conflict of interest.  Unfortunately, it seems logic was not at work here.

“What does appear to be in abundance in this entire debacle is an appalling belief:  that when it comes to making more money for your shareholders and yourself, the ends always justify the means.  The withholding of critical information from customers and the public, the concealment of conflicts of interest, twisting the truth and even outright lying seem to be coin of the realm for the folks who hold this appalling belief.  It’s a very unfortunate commentary about private commerce today that $20 million $30 million will buy a lot of this sort of dishonesty.”

As it stands, the process leading to a possible desalination plant has become littered with thorns. Supporters of this project feel they must barrel through it all and demonstrate certitude  even though they has never built such a plant or maneuvered through such a process. They apparently feel that to stop and listen to anyone who isn’t on their desal team might be seen as a sign of weakness, so they choose to ignore all the noise from the bleachers. “They’re just trying to stop the project.”

And while that might be true for a few, many, many who have been watching and weighing in on the desal project for a decade now want only for the project to be completed as efficiently and cleanly as possible. And, just in case, they want officials to continue considering alternative projects that likely would not be as expensive or environmentally intrusive. There are many who don’t trust Cal Am and fear that special deals with the hospitality industry will leave everyone else paying exorbitant amounts for water. But they also understand that the river needs to be protected and an additional water supply is required. What they want is for Cal Am and the PUC to do a better job.

Cal Am averted a public takeover effort partly by convincing the public that it can do a better job than a public agency. Since then, the company has have presented no evidence of that. If there was generalized trust that Cal Am and its boosters were capable of getting it done on their own, and keeping costs at least somewhat under control,  the noise surely would die down. But what has gone down instead is the trust level, and there may be no end in sight unless Cal Am et al change their ways.

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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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Illustration depicting a large number of directional roadsigns in a chaotic arrangement. White  background.After careful contemplation and the expenditure of countless hours of staff time and other resources, I have come to the conclusion that the two biggest problems facing the Monterey Peninsula are quite closely related.

Problem No. 1, of course, is the declining water supply, which should have been addressed decades ago before we decided that strawberries and grapes were good choices for desert cultivation. The leading proposed solution at the moment involves a possible desalination plant near Marina and an assortment of smaller efforts involving conservation and recycling.

Problem No. 2, almost as obviously, is that just about every element of Problem No. 1 seems so complicated, complex and confounding that there are only a handful of people who understand any of it. On top of that, most of those who do understand it don’t care that you don’t. In fact, some are glad you don’t and there are even those who are being paid to make sure you don’t.

Why so complicated?

First, complexity makes things more expensive,  and when you’re on the receiving side of “cost plus,” there’s a lot to be said for expensive. Second, with all of that cost plus to be spread around, there are many players willing to participate in the search for solutions. Too many.

That starts with the misleadingly named California American Water Co., which has as much to do with California as the autobahn. It is supposed to be playing a lead role in solving Problem 1 but it spends most of its time wading around in the swamps of Problem 2, creating complications and looking for trouble. The company likes to portray itself as a helpful fellow in boots going out into the community, patching leaks and coaching Little League teams when the truth is that the bean counters in the home office depend on those very leaks in order to keep the bottom line above water. Way above water.

Then there’s the Public Utilities Commission, which technically is in charge of solving Problem No. 1 even though it has absolutely no experience in problem solving and even less in desalination. The Public Utilities Commission apparently was put in charge of this process because our state legislators wanted to keep it away from all aspects of gas pipeline safety. You might say that the PUC is Problem No. 3.

A key concern of those involved in the effort locally is that if the PUC ever approves a timeline and a production schedule, it might as a matter of routine order them confidential and put them under seal, effectively killing the venture.

Then there are the local agencies. For instance, the mayors’ authority, a quasi-government agency made up of the mayors of the Peninsula cities. It was set up because the first local agency given an oversight role, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, couldn’t figure out how to convert desalination progress into campaign contributions. The supervisors are hoping to get involved again when construction seems imminent and quite a few construction contracts will need to be awarded.

The mayors’ committee was hoping to jumpstart the process because the hospitality industry pretty much decides who gets to be mayor in these parts and it needs water for hotel rooms occupied by tourists who won’t have to pay for the project. The mayors have gotten off to a slow start, however, because the Del Rey Oaks mayor is busy building ammunition bunkers throughout his community and the Sand City mayor is napping.

A water district in Marina has some role in all of this, but for now its leadership seems to be in a sort of bureaucratic penalty box and won’t be allowed back into the game until the second overtime period. It is a shame because some of the district’s leadership has demonstrated to interested members of the public that you don’t have to have a clue to get involved.

Part of the problem has to do with the news coverage but it isn’t what you might expect. In this age of shrinking newspapers, it hasn’t been a lack of coverage. Just the opposite. In the last decade, the Herald has published nearly 173,500 articles mentioning Cal Am, 62,600 articles containing acronyms for non-existent water agencies, the same number of articles in which Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Steadman says, “We’ll get back to you about that,” and some 20,000 articles in which County Counsel Charles McKee says documents are being sealed in the interest of full disclosure.

Some of the confusion is, of course, the public’s owned damned fault. For instance, believe it or not, there are those in the community who can’t seem to grasp why   a desalination plant designed to take water from the ocean and convert it into drinkable fresh water needs to drill a series of inland wells in order to take already fresh water from Salinas farmers and, through a process invented by the Coastal Commission, convert it into cash to be used to pay consultants to declare the existing water supply more than adequate as an effective hedge against the 180-foot aquatard. Do the math, people. Sheesh.

Cal Am isn’t the only game in town, of course, which makes things that much more complicated.

Peninsula wheeler-dealer Nader Agha has the property and the plans to build a better and cheaper desalination plant in Moss Landing but Cal Am keeps telling people that Agha and former county Supervisor Marc del Piero are the same person, which violates a county ordinance requiring desalination operators to front only for seated supervisors.

Then there’s Deepwater Desal, a creation of Monterey PR man David Armanasco, who has been sidelined because his core clients have hired him to paint murals of wharf pilings to installed over the actual pilings at Fisherman’s Wharf.

And speaking of the wharf, let’s not forget the lawyers. Every lawyer in California who ever lived in a house with a low-flow shower has been declared a water expert for purposes of this feeding frenzy. For convenience and efficiency, each seems to have brought on Tony Lombardo as local counsel. Those who have been around a while will remember him. He wrote the previous general plan while representing most of the supervisors and many of the businesses at Fisherman’s Wharf, including the two warring fish houses that both claim to have invented cioppino Monterey, which consists of a handful of saltwater taffy, samples of five kinds of clam chowder, a couple of restaurant pagers, Sal Cerrito’s will, a half loaf of Armenian pita bread and a half pound of Bubba Gump shrimp but, alas, no sardines.

And let’s not forget the environmentalists, the “no-growthers” who, we are constantly told, are busily working against the interests of the community to reverse all the  progress on the desal front.

Next: Sheriff Bernal’s plan to patrol the waterfront.

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People’s desal project still chugging along

This is an update on the People’s Desal Project, Nader Agha’s proposed desal plant at Moss Landing, as provided by the project’s lawyer, David Balch:

The Moss Landing Harbor District (MLHD) – the CEQA Lead Agency for the People’s Desal Project – voted last night, April 22, to accept the proposal from Aspen Environmental Group to serve as the MLHD’s CEQA consultant. Aspen’s hiring, which was conditioned on the final checking of references and a scoping workshop, begins the formal CEQA review process. Aspen’s proposed schedule shows a June 2016 completion date.

This was a busy week for the People’s Project. Prior to the MLHD vote, we were introducing the project to key regulatory agencies and legislators in Sacramento. We met with Senator Bill Monning’s office, with Secretary Anna Caballero, and with the Chief Consultant to the Environmental Safety Committee (which is chaired by Assemblyman Luis Alejo), as well as with the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Water Commission, and the Lieutenant Governor’s office (who sits on the State Lands Commission). While these meetings were introductory in nature, it marks an exciting new phase for the People’s Moss Landing project.

Project Overview

The People’s Moss Landing project is a proposed reverse osmosis desalination plant at the Moss Landing Green Commercial Park that will produce 13,404 acre-feet per year (AFY) of potable water. The Project proposes to provide 3,652 AFY of “new water” to North County and 9,752 AFY to the Monterey Peninsula, to offset Cal-Am’s mandated water supply diversion curtailments on the Carmel River and Seaside Basin. The Project is located at the site of the former Kaiser Refractories Plant in Moss Landing, and it will occupy approximately 16 acres of the entire 186 acre site. Once the plant is built, water production (including delivery) is estimated to cost between $1,950 and $2,000 per acre foot – the least expensive of the three major local desalination proposals. The Draft Process Design Report provides a detailed overview of the Project and is located on the Project’s website.

Project Benefits

The “People’s Project” is located at the former National Refractories site in Moss Landing, California, which was identified by the CPUC in 2002 as the “preferred site” for a Monterey desalination plant, at the direction of the State Legislature. The MLCP site is zoned industrial and has been used extensively for industrial purposes. The site is considered ideal for a desalination plant since it is adjacent to the Moss Landing Power Plant, has access to a major roadway, and has significant infrastructure in place.

The People’s Project site has historical intake from, and discharge into, Monterey Bay, pre-existing the creation of the California Coastal Commission and the Monterey Bay Marine National Sanctuary. The site also has existing, grandfathered intake and outfall pipelines that run from the property, under Highway One and the Moss Landing harbor, and out into Monterey Bay. (The project team, of course, is aware of the proposed SWRCB regulations that require subsurface intake unless proven infeasible, and we look forward to working with the regulators during the coming months on this issue.) The site also has senior appropriative rights of approximately 2,000 acre feet of zone 2C groundwater, considered to be part of Salinas Valley groundwater basin. The People’s Project is the only project that has these critical benefits.

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????I want to congratulate the Carmel Pine Cone on being the latest victim to obtain a Cal Am press release and print it in a newspaper as journalism: “Slant Well Salinity not There Yet” but …”it’s moving in the right direction, Cal Am says,” on Page 1 of Friday’s edition. Perhaps this pronouncement could have generated a couple of piercing questions from the newspaper. Since that did not happen, let us discuss what was reported.

1. “The Company said Thursday that the facility (slant well) has completed an important five day continuous operation of the well, with promising results.” Response: The initial operation testing is a CEQA requirement, with immediate reporting to parties required.

2. “At one of the monitoring wells, Cal Am said the drop in groundwater levels and salinity changes (due to the pumping of 2,000 gallons per minute) were much better than limits set by the California Coastal Commission.” Response: Swell, what is the reduction and salinity changes at the other six monitoring wells?

3. “The salinity of the water from the test well itself increased from 23,000 parts before the test to 26,000 parts at the conclusion of the 5 day test.” Response: 23,000 ppm is 65.71% seawater, or 34.29% fresh water. At 26,000 the numbers are 74.28% and 25.71%. This is a far cry from 4%, but ask yourself how does the water composition change by 3,000 in a five day test? Seawater intrusion, remember this is an unconfined aquifer.

4. “Given the large volume of water located within the shallow dunes sand and relatively small pump volume,” Cal Am reported that “these two trends are very positive and indicate that ocean water is moving toward the well.” Response: And fresh water is being evacuated from the aquifer, and pumped directly back into the ocean in violation of state law and the Beneficial Use rules of the California Water Code.

I am sure it is possible to read this article in a positive light and ignore the Cal Am spin, but the statements against self interest, in this article, in their water rights lawsuits have to make their attorneys cringe. Cal Am has consistently said it will draw primarily seawater and that any take of fresh water would be incidental. Let me put the 2 year “take” Cal Am proposes into mathematical perspective.

1. 2,000 gallons per minutes equal 2,880,000 gallons per day. That is equal to 8.32 acre feet per day. Five days of testing equals 41.6 acre feet for the CEQA test. Of that 41.6 acre feet, approximately 30% (split the diff. 23K v 26K) is fresh water, or 12.48 acre feet.

2. Now let’s run the test for the first year: 1,051,200,000 gallons of water, or 3,038.15 acre-feet of water, that will be pumped into one pipe and blown back out into the ocean in another pipe, with no beneficial use. Assuming the 30% fresh ratio, that is 911.45 acre-feet of fresh water wasted. These numbers may be low because Cal Am has been permitted and is allowed to pump 4,000 acre-feet per year for 2 years, so they may increase the pump rate, but we need to ask them.

3. Second year: Assume same numbers, another 3,038.15 acre-feet of water, and another 911.45 acre-feet of fresh water.

4. Combining the two years gives us 6,076.3 acre feet of water pumped, of which 1,822,900 is Salinas Valley fresh water that has simply been illegally extracted from an overdrafted basin by increasing seawater intrusion.

Now let’s politically put these numbers into perspective. Recently two land-use decisions were made by the Board of Supervisors that allowed the projects to move forward. I forget the numbers on one of the projects, but the other was 90 acre-feet of Zone 2C water per year. For the record, I live off Highway 68 and am not a fan of either project, but I am simply trying to make a point. The posturing from the dais at the Board of Supervisors meeting predictable. Jane Parker voted no, and I truly believe she votes her conscience and believes what she says, water is an issue, and a no vote. Potter, after doing a head count and knowing he had 3 votes yes, pontificated about 90 acre-feet and voted no.

Where is the hue and cry over the 1,822.90 acre feet of Zone 2C water being wasted on a test that will never get close to 4% salinity. And why is 4% a magic number? It is still water Cal Am does not own and not legally transport.

Let me put two points to rest for the Cal Am naysayers who say 1) the test was necessary, and 2) we did not have preexisting test data.

The test numbers in the EIR certified by the state Public Utilities Commission in 2010 pegged the fresh water percentage in the groundwater at the CEMEX site at 25%. Going vertical with a deeper core at the same site generated the infamous 15% that was heavily debated. Memories starting to return? All you have to do is pull up the prior EIR to find this data.

The State Water Resource Control Board and the Coastal Commission, following CEQA guidelines, require evaluation of all the applicable water sources. Prior data testing that is timely and relevant may be included in the data set presented to the regulatory authorities, for evaluation.” Straight from the CEQA handbook, perhaps Marc Del Piero can weigh in on this.

One final thought, the salinity and total dissolved solids measurements can be done hourly and with a kit. I find it interesting that two months turned into a Friday report with no other press outlet reporting. Congratulations, Pine Cone, on hard-hitting investigative journalism.

Steve Collins is an accountant and former chairman of the Monterey County Water Resource Agency board of directors. He helped lead the county’s efforts to develop a desalination plant in partnership with Cal Am and was prosecuted for a conflict of interest that he maintains was encouraged and approved by top county officials.

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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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