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UPDATE: IN COMMENT SECTION BELOW, STEELHEAD ASSOCIATION’S FRANK EMERSON RESPONDS AND SAYS, WELL, YES, WE HAVE RECEIVED A LITTLE BIT OF MONEY FROM CAL AM.

The Monterey Herald’s most recent editorial on the important subject of water might have been compelling if its premise had been correct. Ironically, the errant editorial began with a lecture strongly and wrongly insinuating that backers of a public takeover of Cam Am Water play fast and loose with the facts.

The focus of the piece Thursday’s was that “some public water advocates have expressed the view” that the Carmel River Steelhead Association supports Cal Am’s deeply troubled desalination project because the organization has received money for its noble work protecting the fish in the endangered river.

(I would include a link to the editorial but as far as I can tell it is not been posted to the web.)

The Herald doesn’t get specific about the source of the supposed payments to the association, but the editorial seems to be saying that those unnamed “public water advocates” have alleged that the association gets money from Cal Am. The Herald doesn’t identify or quote any of the public water advocates who purportedly have accused the association of having been bought off. I could be wrong, but I believe there were no names or quotations in the article because nobody has made such an accusation, at least not in any type of public forum.

Several years ago, I asked one of the association’s most active leaders, Frank Emerson, if the group was getting any money from Cal Am. I raised the question largely because Emerson has defended Cal Am so strongly and has been so vigorous in his criticism of Cal Am’s critics. He said Cal Am hadn’t provided a penny. I believed him then and I believe him now. I disagree with Emerson’s view of Cal Am. He seems to forget that its record of overpumping the Carmel River and its neglect of the San Clemente Dam were key reasons that the steelhead are in danger in the first place. I disagree with his opinion but I don’t question his honesty.

The issue of a public takeover will be on the ballot late next year. The last time the issue was on a public ballot, Cal Am fended off the effort through an exceptionally well funded and deceptive advertising blitz. If the Herald wants to play any useful role in the next election, here’s hoping it plays it straighter than it did this week.

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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.

Tap drippingEven 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.

Racks of filters in a desalination plantAlso 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. )

eric-zigas

Eric Zigas

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.)

Antique water fountain, detail of a source for drinking water, drinking waterSUCCESS SHOULDN’T REQUIRE SETTLING FOR SECOND-RATE

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.

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Lovely girl and little pony

Contrarian Larry Parsons wants people to remember that a vote against Monterey Downs is a vote against ponies

It’s one of the glorious days when possible subjects to write about are falling from the sky like so many stars in a Jimi Hendrix song.

First, there are all advance quotes from former Vice President Dick Cheney’s interview in the upcoming issue of Playboy in which he — major SPOILER alert — calls President Obama the worst president of all time and space.

This from the guy who never saw an oil well or potential Middle Eastern war without feeling lust in his heart. Cue the Jimmy Carter canoe-and-cannibal-rabbit story, and juxtapose it with the time Cheney was bitten by a floppy-eared werewolf.

Another subject, naturally, is Starbucks’ harebrained push for employees to engage customers in conversations about racial relations in the United States. People much higher in their pay grades in politics, pulpits, the media and corporate board rooms should be having these conversations — not $10-an-hour baristas, for pity’s sake.

“Reparations, race cards, rap music!!! Just give me caffeine, for #!?%’s sake.” Oh, the sound of America healing.

And there is the Hillary problem — that amorphous, media-fed tidal wave carrying the flotsam of secret emails, cattle futures, travel bookings, botched health-care plans and being-married-to-Bill again to the shores of our presidential politics. But there will be time, oh, there will be time, to wear out the fingers blogging about this. It never will go away, and the mighty Wurlitzer is just getting tuned up.

Then I spotted a story from the right side of the media world that seemed especially piquant. A blogger for the Daily Caller, the conservative web site run by Peter Pan frat boy Tucker Carlson, quit when Tucker spiked a column critical of Fox News. Seems you can criticize everything under the sun but Fox News — Imperial Death Star of right-wing confabulation — at the Daily Caller.

The writer was unhappy that Fox lately has dropped threat-level 7 stories about the scourge of unauthorized immigration and Obama amnesty plans to pad Democratic voter lists. Apparently, Fox is hitting harder at the scourge of all things Muslim and the terrible fact that American troops are no longer dying in sufficient numbers in the Middle East because the last two wars went so well.

This falling-out among fevered founts of Fox fabulism got me thinking. I’d best watch my step, or something similar could upset the equilibrium here the Monterey Bay Partisan.

In my notebook, I found a few ideas I’d been kicking around for columns that I realize might run afoul of what could be called the Partisan party line. Rest assured they will never see the light of day, or I, too, would have to take the high road and resign in a righteous huff from this comfortable and prestigious sinecure. I will share a few, but this is strictly between me and you. Totally off the record, very hush-hush.

1. Sure Cal Am hasn’t produced a major water project for the Peninsula to save the Carmel River for almost 40 years and the multinational utility takes profits out of the community and passes on all sorts of questionable costs to customers who spend a good part of each day getting thorns and needles out of their hides from their prickly xeriscape gardens, but the water company isn’t all bad. I saw a crew fixing a water line one day, and the guy with the jack hammer smiled, or looked like he was trying to smile as his face jiggled like Jello …

2. We can agree that the undeveloped land at Fort Ord is pretty unsurpassed in coastal country beauty, but just a teensy bit could be tastefully destroyed to make room for the charming, little Monterey Downs horsolopolis. Think of all the jobs. You remember, Hercules got his start mucking out stables. And if there were horses, there would be ponies. So there will be pony rides for all the children, and we must think of the children …

3. OK, the Ferrini Ranch subdivision will dump hundreds of more vehicles each day on Highway 68, making the stop-and-go commute between Salinas and Monterey a lot more stoppy than goey. But there are a lot of good audio books that can be very instructive when you spend more than two hours a day listening to them in frozen traffic. And some folks, who must take Highway 68 to get to the two or three jobs they juggle to make ends meet, may decide to eat and sleep in their cars during peak congestion. This could ease the horrible shortage of affordable housing in Monterey County. Moreover, the slower traffic pace will allow travelers more time to enjoy the rustic beauty of the old red-and-white fence near Laguna Seca …

Seriously, these jottings, I promise, will never see the light of day at this blog.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the upcoming Cheney issue of Playboy. I’m interested in whether the Playboy editors have ever found a Playboy Party Joke that is funny. Like this one:

Trimalchio: I attended an orgy last night with the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.

Encolpius: Ooh, sounds nasty. Was it fun?

Trimalchio: For a while, but then Mike Huckabee arrived.

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Do profits prevent Cal Am from picking up the pace?

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????Twelve years ago, Nader Agha told me “Cal Am will never build a desal plant.”

We were having lunch at the Hyatt Monterey. Agha had set up the meeting to chew me out. I was the city editor at the Monterey Herald, which had published an article about his plan to buy the National Refractories property at Moss Landing. Agha, the developer-coin dealer-entrepreneur, was buying it as a potential site for a desalination plant of his own and he feared that publicity would kill the deal.

When I said I was skeptical about his ability to build a desal plant, he shook his head and said, “Do you really think Cal Am is going to build a desal plant?” He drew in his breath and raised his shoulders and said, slowly and loudly, “Cal Am will NEVER build a desal plant. NEVER.”

Why’s that, I asked, quickly and softly. He pulled out a pen and started scrawling on a napkin. There were numbers and arrows and plus signs and minuses. When he could tell I was not following, he wadded the napkin and said, “It’s simple. Cal Am is making too much money selling water that it gets for free. Why would the company want to spend millions of dollars doing something else when it is making so much money selling water it gets for free?”

Each time Cal Am suffers another setback in its effort to build a desal plant for the Peninsula, I think about Agha’s prediction. He’s no expert on utility finance but he has does know something about buying low and selling high. Given Cal Am’s halting progress toward a desal solution, I have had plenty of occasions to think about his forecast.

I thought of it again this week, of course, when I heard that Cal Am is suing over rights to use the Cemex property in Marina to drill test wells. In case you missed it, there had been a big fuss over the last several months over whether the city of Marina would allow Cal Am to drill the wells without conducting a complete environmental impact study. The city said no, and Cal Am supporters howled that do-nothing environmentalists on the City Council were trying to block the desal plant because of its growth-inducing potential.

As we have been told again and again, time’s a’wasting. The Peninsula is under state order to greatly reduce its reliance on the Carmel River. Cal Am needs to develop a considerable supply of replacement water pronto or face large fines.

Who pays those fines is an open question, of course. If Cal Am can persuade the state that it did all it could, those fines could land right on top of our water bills. Cal Am has stumbled to the right and stumbled to the left since the original water cutback order of 1995 but has managed each time to somehow put the blame on everyone else.

Now, here’s another delay and Cal Am is telling us it wasn’t its fault. It was Marina’s fault or the fault of whoever got to Cemex.

It turns out Cal Am had no firm deal with Cemex to drill the wells. Cal Am’s engineering department had gotten ahead of the legal department. In other words, this multinational conglomerate has been spending more ratepayer money and doing all sorts of engineering and hydrological work based on a handshake arrangement with another multinational conglomerate.

Good thinking.

Now Cal Am will try to get the courts to order Cemex to go along as a public necessity. There will be appeals and appeals of appeals, all involving deployments of sharply dressed lawyers.

We’ll be told that it’s the fault of do-nothing enviros, or even Cal Am customers who couldn’t convince Marina politicians that it is their responsibility to fix water problems outside their jurisdiction.

Eventually, I imagine, we’ll be asked to pay for it all, the appeals and the appeals of the appeals and the nicely dressed lawyers and the studies. Plus a 10 percent profit margin on top of it.

And in the meantime, Cal Am will keep pumping free water from the Carmel River and charging us more and more for it.

All because Cal Am’s lawyers didn’t do their job.

Or did they?

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