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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see the clip and read the history here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Case of the Elusive Pumps

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Marc del Piero stands next to the primary well on the Ag Land Trust property. He did not seem certain Friday on whether the pump should be described as pink or purple.

THE NOT-SO-HARDY BOYS  SOLVE THEIR FIRST MYSTERY

When the California Public Utilities Commission decides how much Cal Am Water can charge its customers for the big desalination project, it should slice a few bucks off the bill submitted by whoever was in charge of looking for the Ag Land Trust well on the neighboring property.

The Ag Land Trust and one of its board members, Marc Del Piero, have contended for some time now that Cal Am wells supplying the plant could draw down the groundwater supply and speed the encroachment of sea water, jeopardizing farming operations in the area north of Marina. Of particular concern, the Ag Land Trust wells sunk into the sandy soil within shouting distance of the desal site.

The draft environmental report for the project, released this week, dismisses the concern by saying a staff of experts couldn’t find a well there, and couldn’t find the other one either.

To be perfectly fair, one of the wells is a little hard to find, especially if the search party doesn’t think to ask someone where it might be.

The other is not. It’s painted a bright pinkish purple. You can drive right up to it. You can even see it from Highway 1. If you climbed to the top of the Cemex plant next to Cal Am’s desal site, you probably could see it. It’s less than a mile away and there are a bunch of pipes and a little white pump house to give it away.

Still, those who wrote the draft EIR were baffled:

“There is one landowner about one mile from the proposed slant wells, Ag Land Trust, which has reported that it operates an active well. Despite queries and efforts to obtain data on this well, no information is available, and efforts to physically locate the well have been unsuccessful. The Groundwater Resources section of this EIR concludes that this well is likely either inactive given the brackish to saline quality of the groundwater it would draw if it were screened in the 400-foot aquifer, or is screened in the deeper 900-foot aquifer, which will not be affected by the project. All in all, the project was determined not to result in a significant impact in terms of groundwater supplies either quantitatively or qualitatively. Thus, it appears reasonable to conclude that the (project) would not result in harm or injury to the water rights of legal users of water in the basin in terms of fresh water supply or water quality, two of the report’s three injury criteria relative to the development of legal water rights.”

In other words, if we can’t find it, we’re not going to worry about it and you shouldn’t either. Elsewhere the report says subcontractors from Geoscience walked around looking for the wells but it just didn’t work out for reasons that are not explained.

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I was standing next to one of the Ag Land Trust wells when I took this picture. That’s Marc del Piero down by the car. That’s the desalination site in the background.

Perhaps I have the advantage of inexperience in such matters, but I was able to find the wells in about an hour on Friday, an hour that included 40 minutes of drive time. Here’s how I did it. I called Del Piero.

We met at a clandestine rendezvous spot, the Burger King parking lot in Castroville, and drove first to the pinkish purple pump, which sits at the edge of an artichoke field. The pump isn’t used for irrigation at the moment because of its tendency to pull salt water the wrong way, but it is used for other purposes.

We then drove to the other pump, turning first into the Cemex entrance and then onto a dirt road that separates the Cemex property from the Ag Land Trust land. We parked below the first hill we came to. In order to find the pump, I had to get out of the car and get my shoes dirty but dedication to the task pushed me upward and onward. When I saw a pump sticking out of the ground, I knew I had found the pump.

The draft EIR correctly speculates that it is not in use, but it would take little more than the flip of a switch to change that.

“They never called anyone at the Land Trust,” said Del Piero, who avoided getting his shoes dirty because he had to look sharp for a Castroville Rotary meeting. “We tried to get their attention for two years but we’ve never heard back.”

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Occasionally invisible, the primary Ag Land Trust well includes the white structure, background left, in this shot from Highway 1.

I reached out to some of the responsible Friday but, no, nothing yet. I’ll keep you posted. I’ll probably hear something Monday or soon thereafter

I suppose I could have asked Del Piero if for some reason the Ag Land Trust would not have wanted the EIR preparers to find the pumps, but that would have been a question more stupid than the vast majority of those I have given birth to over the years.

I found it interesting that the writers of the EIR doubt the existence of the wells but think they can measure their depth. Credit that to experience with such things.

I doubt that this little bit of messiness reflects on the entire 1,700-page EIR document, which looks quite professional and includes many charts and graphics, and, as I mentioned, fills up 1,700 mostly full pages. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the authors of the report were able to actually find quite a bit of the information that they based their conclusions on. If that proves not to be the case, however, they might want to give me a call and I’ll see what I can do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE ONE FOR MILLER

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

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

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

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

 DRAMA IN THE DESERT

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

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

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

Monterey City Council candidate Ed Smith

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

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

“I’m glad to be back in Monterey.”

RILEY RESPONDS TO CAL AM SABER RATTLING

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAYBE THEY WERE TRYING TO SAVE ON LEGAL FEES

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

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

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

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Do profits prevent Cal Am from picking up the pace?

????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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