STATE HAS MADE CAL AM DESAL PROJECT A TEST CASE
OFFICIAL IN CHARGE OF EIR WAS PROJECT’S FIRST CHEERLEADER
TIME PRESSURE GIVES OFFICIALS EXCUSE TO CUT CORNERS
To hear some people tell it, one of the big problems facing Cal Am’s desalination project in Marina is criticism from those concerned about the environmental and economic impacts. Project supporters go so far as to blame the critics for the various delays that have forced repeated changes in the pre-construction timetable.
But after following the process closely for a decade now, after being counseled interminably by project proponents and reading environmental impact reports, feasibility studies and all manner of other paperwork, I have come to the opposite conclusion. I believe one of the venture’s biggest problems is that it has too much support. By that, I mean that agencies that should be honestly evaluating the project are advocating for it instead, leading to lapses in judgment and errors in execution. Peninsula business interests, meanwhile, panicked by the threat of water cutbacks, have taken a full-speed-ahead posture that could help produce a flawed and incredibly expensive answer to a problem that has other solutions.
When a previous incarnation of the desal project fell apart, it wasn’t because naysayers had put up too many obstacles. Key factors in its demise were a politically awkward management structure and the fact that money was being passed under the table in an effort to advance the project, not destroy it.
Now, proponents and participants in the project have proved again to be their own worst enemies, first by making overly optimistic projections about the composition of the water to be desalted and by ignoring glaring conflicts of interest built into the process of testing the water at the plant site north of Marina.
In defense, those in charge cite the heavy deadline pressure, with the state threatening to force untenable cuts in the Peninsula’s use of Carmel River water. They say time is so tight that they must push on or else the Peninsula’s economic well being will be in grave danger. Such thinking plays right into the hands of Cal Am, of course, which makes its money no matter how many times it has to start over.
When I was opinion page editor of the Monterey Herald, we came out in favor of desalination because of the shortage of practical alternatives. We were one of the first entities in the community to voice support. I now feel that the alternatives are becoming more attractive and that the project in its current configuration presents even graver danger to the well being of Cal Am customers on the Peninsula, who will be forced to pay for it no matter how expensive it becomes—even if it never produces a drop of drinkable water.
PENINSULA PLANT COULD BE A MODEL, FOR A PRICE
Creating additional pressures and costs, the state is using the project to test its preferred water-intake technology with minimal compensation to the Peninsula. As it stands, Peninsula water customers will be required to cover millions and millions of dollars in expenses regardless of whether the test is a success. Remember when Cal Am and its supporters were breathlessly arguing that testing of the intake method needed to begin as soon as possible, and that anyone who said otherwise was an obstructionist? That testing is on hold now for reasons that informed and objective observers could have seen coming, and the money meter continues to spin.
Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett, an almost full-time participant in the desalination process as chair of the Peninsula mayors’ water authority, agrees that the financial burden created by the experiment should be shared by state taxpayers, and he indicated he is working on it.
Even now, while the testing and environmental impact review are both stalled, Cal Am is going after yet another set of rate increases to help pay for the plant that may never be built and to offset income it has lost because its Peninsula customers have done such a good job of conserving water. Residential customers, who already consume and conserve some of the most expensive water in the state, would see rates increase by 29 percent under a request Cal Am filed last week with the Public Utilities Commission. At the same time, businesses would see a rate reduction of some 14 percent even though some business interests already pay discounted rates in what amounts to a reward for supporting the desal project.
Cal Am’s ability to obtain rate increase after increase from the PUC helps explain why the utility is comfortable doing whatever the state wants, no matter how illogical or expensive. In the cost-plus world of utility accounting, bigger expenses mean bigger profits.
PENINSULA IS A DESAL GUINEA PIG IN A COSTLY EXPERIMENT
Few people quarrel with the need for a desalination plant or some other means of stretching the Peninsula’s water supply. We have nearly destroyed the Carmel River, our primary water source. State officials were correct to issue a cease and desist order that will require Cal Am to greatly reduce pumping from the river in stages, which local officials are desperately attempting to postpone until the plant comes online.
Compounding the challenge significantly, the project has become an important test case that will help decide what type of water intake should be employed by other desalination facilities now on the drawing boards up and down the state.
They make it sound super complicated. It isn’t. It is worth your attention if only because it will help you understand the latest conflict of interest issue that has thrown a wrench into the process.
The easiest and least expensive intake is known as open ocean, which means pumping water straight from the ocean. The problem is that all manner of marine life is pumped into the plant along with the salty water.
Environmental groups and the various regulatory agencies greatly prefer the idea of subsurface intake, which involves pumping from below the ocean floor, using the sand and other sediment as filters to protect aquatic life. In the best case from an environmental standpoint, the wells would be drilled some distance from the shore and slanted so that their intakes would extend below the ocean floor.
Unfortunately, there is some guesswork involved in deciding exactly where to drill the so-called slant wells and there are few successful examples. Cal Am’s project presents the state with one of the largest and most meaningful tests of the slant well technology so far.
Also unfortunately, not everyone involved in the project has the same agenda, and the state apparently ignored some well-established principles of how public works projects should be organized and assessed.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to examine the shifting roles of the man now in charge of preparing the all-important environmental impact report for the current project. That’s Eric Zigas of the San Francisco firm of Environmental Science Associates.
Zigas may be a familiar name to those who have followed the desalination follies from the start. He also one of the architects of the previous incarnation of the desalination project–the version that devolved into a web of litigation. Before that he was a key part of the Public Utilities Commission team that decided desalination was the best solution to the Peninsula’s water problem.
PROJECT’S CHIEF ENVIRONMENTAL MONITOR STARTED WITH A VERY DIFFERENT ROLE
The current desalination proposal grew out of what became known as Plan B after plans for a dam on the Carmel River fell apart. The Legislature put the Public Utilities Commission in charge of finding an alternative and Zigas was hired to help draft the plan. He teamed with officials at UC Santa Cruz and various state and local agencies to help craft an ambitious scheme for a desalination plant at Moss Landing with a long list of environmental amenities such as a garbage-powered energy supply. The PUC then assigned Zigas to tout the plan to various Peninsula business groups, service clubs, news outlets and others. He effectively helped sell the community on desalination.
But for various reasons, most of the bells and whistles were later removed from the plan, and the project became a cumbersome joint venture between Cal Am, Monterey County and the Marina Coast Water District. Despite Zigas’ earlier role as the official cheerleader for the project, his firm was hired by the PUC to prepare the environmental impact report on that proposal before other factors caused it to be shelved.
Today, Zigas leads the environmental analysis of the process he helped initiate. Those who have worked with him say his experience on the Peninsula gives him unmatched knowledge of the issues involved, which are many. The project is complex, including a plant processing countless gallons of sea water, disposing tons of brine, and dispatching fresh water through a new network of pipelines. The expectation, of course, is that the analysis will be scientific and unbiased. A draft of the EIR is now circulating and the technical community now examining the document will determine whether has Zigas successfully switched hats. Considering how much controversy the process has created, the final EIR is very likely to be tested in court.
(When the first draft of the official environmental impact report incorrectly concluded that there were no functional agricultural wells near the plant site, Zigas briefly defended his team’s work before adopting a no-comment stance. )
Zigas isn’t talking to the press, at least not to the Partisan, and he hasn’t publicly addressed his role in the latest delays.
The EIR process has been pushed back a few months because of a conflict created by the involvement of a firm that holds a patent on the slant-well technology. To help assess the test well, Zigas’ firm had brought in a company called Geoscience, headed by noted hydrologist Dennis Williams. In addition to the potential conflict presented by his patent, Williams also was working for Cal Am on the same project.
The PUC’s project manager, Andrew Barnsdale, was reassigned last week because of the revelations, which were brought to light by project critics. At the same time, a PUC administrative law judge, Gary Weatherford, issued a lengthy order requiring ESA and Cal Am to provide the contracts of everyone involved and to explain the degree to which the testing process may have been tainted.
It should not be forgotten that the Geoscience situation surfaced after the Coastal Commission suspended pumping at the test site last month because the well apparently was taking in more fresh water than anticipated. After the testing began, the groundwater table started dropping, which Cal Am blamed on agricultural pumping though it had insisted previously that there was no agricultural pumping in the area. Critics of the project had nothing to do with that.
GEORGE AND JASON LOOK AT PROJECT FROM DIFFERENT PERSPECRTIVES
George Riley has followed the project’s process as closely as anyone, and has a unique perspective. While he is an activist and head of a group that advocates public takeover of Cal Am, he also has been an accredited participant in the PUC processes as well as a member of a technical advisory committee advising Peninsula mayors on desal matters.
He agrees that the process has been marred by inter-connections.
“A quiet alliance of advocates, appearing as specialists, has emerged,” he said by email. “All are also quietly supported by the ruling state agencies. The ruling water elites at the state level have a greater role here, and has not been discussed. And Monterey Peninsula as guinea pig is useful for them.”
Riley said Zigas and Environmental Science Associates do deserve credit, both for helping get the well testing process on track after Cal Am’s dawdling had worsened the time crunch and for pushing for well testing data to be included in the environmental impact report. The idea, Riley said, is for the final EIR to become “the vehicle for tooting the horns for slant wells” strongly favored by the various state agencies.
In Riley’s view, the fumbles that have marred the process would not be so worrisome if the state was helping to pay for the slant well testing and if the state would do more to encourage competing proposals that possibly could address the Peninsula’s water needs more quickly and less expensively.
Burnett, in a telephone interview Saturday, said he supports the PUC’s decision to call a brief timeout over the patent issue and examine where things went wrong with the test well team. He said it is important now to view Geoscience as a “proponent” rather than an arms-length analyst.
But Burnett disagrees that the process is fundamentally flawed or that the project’s management structure should be overhauled. He said he has great faith in Weatherford, the administrative law judge who is reviewing the testing conflicts.
(Burnett, by the way, has taken quite a beating politically in some quarters for his role as a leading advocate for such a controversial project. His detractors should be reminded that he helped create a financing package for the plant that should save ratepayers millions of dollars over time and managed almost single-handedly to impose some level of public oversight over the project despite serious resistance from Cal Am.)
From where I sit, it seems clear that the PUC needs to do more than study the known conflicts and then continue on the same course if this project is to be salvaged. Soonest, it needs to join with local politicians and work with the State Water Resources Control Board to eliminate the artificial pressure caused by the cease-and-desist order deadlines before they result in a hopelessly flawed and expensive project.
Barnsdale, the now departed PUC project manager, is a bureaucrat, a permit processor, not a construction or desalination expert. His replacement needs to be someone with real world experience rather than a purely regulatory background.
The PUC also needs to do what it can to support alternative measures such as wastewater recycling and stepped up conservation and to take a closer look at the competing proposals, the Moss Landing plans being pursued by Nader Agha and the DeepWater group, to see if they could effectively supplant some or all of the Cal Am project.
Obviously, the PUC also needs to take a long look at Cal Am’s rate structure for the Peninsula and drill into the company’s argument for two classes of rates, one set for the relatively helpless residential customers and a discounted set for the more politically powerful business class.
Finally, Cal Am and its supporters need to stop attempting to vilify anyone who raises questions about the process. All major public works projects encounter problems and this one is more complex than most. Clearly, outside scrutiny will make it stronger, not weaker. As a community, there is strong agreement that we are obligated to stop abusing the Carmel River and unless someone works some magic and soon, we seem to be stuck with desal as the solution. That does not mean, however, that we must accept a project that carries a bloated pricetag and creates as many problems as it solves.