For those of you who missed it, the Monterey County Weekly had an important piece this week raising the possibility that the Pure Water recycling project could be enlarged enough to eliminate the need for Cal Am’s tremendously expensive desalination plant. Here it is.
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.
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.
See update at end. Also new, PUC Judge Gary Weatherford’s order detailing true information he wants from Cal Am and others about the latest conflict of interest.
There were some nice surprises in Jim Johnson’s story today in the Monterey Herald. The subject was desalination but it was not about delays or cost increases, at least not directly.
Johnson reported that Public Utilities Commission project manager Andrew Barnsdale is being relieved from the responsibility of overseeing the Cal Am desal project on the Peninsula. There were two surprises right there.
One was that there was a specific someone at the PUC who was responsible for the desal project. The impression had been created long ago that no one was in charge unless it was Cal Am. Whenever anything big happened at the PUC level, it always seemed to be the work of an administrative law judge who was allowed no contact with anyone except large law firms. Some of those administrative law judges seem pretty bright, but they’re pretty much limited to ruling on matters put in front of them by others who may or may not qualify for that distinction.
So someone named Barnsdale was in charge? Good to know. His name had come up along the way, but it hadn’t stirred much interest in the growing community of desal watchers locally for several reasons. First, his background is mostly in environmental law, electricity and permitting issues, not water or construction. Second, he had responsibilities for other significant projects around the state. Apparently the PUC thinks that overseeing an extremely important and tremendously challenging $400 million-plus desal project is a part-time job for someone without desal experience.
Also under surprises but in the “good surprises” category was that whoever Barnsdale reports to took action upon learning of a conflict of interest situation. It involves testing of the well technology that Cal Am intends to use. It turned out that the testing was essentially being carried out by one fellow who was being paid by most everyone involved in the effort, and who stood to make more money the longer the technology seemed to be working. Among those he was working for was the PUC and Cal Am. And the company preparing the environmental impact report on the project.
There are a couple of surprises contained in the preceding paragraph. No, not the conflict of interest part. The conflicts were apparent months ago to just about everyone involved, everyone except the PUC apparently. The surprises are that the PUC either didn’t know or pretended not to know something that should have been obvious to anyone with a passing interest in the subject, that it admitted to recognizing the problem eventually and, probably most surprising of all, that it did something about it.
UPDATE: Following the original post of this article, Monterey water activist George Riley weighed in with a comment, see below, strongly supportive of Barnsdale. Considering George’s superior knowledge of this project, the process and the players, this very strongly suggests that Barnsdale is being scapegoated. Stay turned for more on this.
The 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.
It was an apparent miracle in the field Monday, an artichoke field instead of a bean field, but a miracle nonetheless.
Right there within sight of the Cal Am desalination site, almost in the shadow of Highway 1, water streamed from a well that does not exist, or at least it doesn’t exist in the eyes of the company that wrote the draft environmental impact report for the desal plant and also according to the Carmel Pine Cone, which seems to operate as Cal Am’s public relations arm at times.
Environmental Science Associates reported in the draft EIR last month that it had been unable to find any wells at the Ag Land Trust artichoke fields that adjoin the Cemex facility north of Marina, which is where Cal Am plans to build its desalination compound. It matters because Marc del Piero, the lawyer for the Ag Land Trust, argues in court filings that the desalination project could draw down groundwater in the area, injuring the Ag Land Trust wells and possibility accelerating the intrusion of seawater into the fresh water aquifer.
Del Piero’s position is that the Cal Am operation could jeopardizes other wells in the area and that the issue needs further study. The EIR consultant’s position, however, seems to be that there aren’t any other wells to worry about.
It is entirely possible that the consultant, ESA, simply made a mistake or got confused. Or, perhaps, someone decided that by declaring the well non-existent, potential impacts could be ignored despite state law that frowns on ignoring impacts. Who knows? Regardless, the Partisan subsequently reported May 1 that it had found both an operational well on the Ag Land Trust property and a disconnected well nearby.
In conversation with the Partisan on Friday, ESA’s Eric Zigas initially clung to his position that no well exists, and then he backtracked to say there was no “active” well. He then backtracked further, saying his company had not conducted the search for the well. He said that was done by a hydrologist, Martin Feeney, who does work for Cal Am, the Salinas Valley Water Coalition and others. Feeney said Friday that the well doesn’t count because Monterey County officials don’t maintain a log for it, making it illegal. Del Piero says that while the water in the well is slightly too salty to be used for irrigation, the well is properly permitted.
In another conversation, Zigas modified his stance even further. According to the Pine Cone, he acknowledged that there is a well near the reclamation pump at the Ag Land Trust property, but said it is “capped and permanently disconnected.”
In fact, it is neither capped nor disconnected, permanently or temporarily. It was operational two weeks ago and it was operational Monday morning when the Partisan returned to the Ag Land Trust artichoke field north of Marina.
And as the noon hour approached, the clouds that often shade that section of shoreline appeared to part. A shaft of sunlight guided us first to the purple pump that delivers water from the Castroville reclamation facility and then to the well and pipes 20 feet away. The Ag Land Trust’s Sherwood Darington flipped a switch from “reclamation district” to “well.” Soon there was the sound of a motor running and seconds later a column of water gushed from a large pipe, startling some seagulls that had been observing nearby.
As we reported May 1, water pumped by the well is too salty to be used for irrigation, which is why the artichoke operation relies on recycled water pumped in from elsewhere. The water is only about 10 percent as saline as seawater, however, and could be mixed with other water and used for irrigation purposes, according to del Piero. He and I sampled the water Monday. I’m not sure I could taste any salt.
The Partisan had additional questions for Zigas, such as whether his consultants had found the other Ag Land Trust well. The well that gushed on Friday is east of Highway 1. The other well, which indeed is disconnected, is on the other side of the freeway. Zigas declined to answer, however, declaring the conversation “confrontational” before abruptly hanging up. Neither he nor his boss returned subsequent calls.
Del Piero’s comments follow:
“The Pine Cone article, specifically the Zigas quotes and the implications that reporter Kelly Nix tries to draw from them, is obviously false. The groundwater well is fully operational and it is not capped. We ran the well just a few weeks ago. The paper, on behalf of Cal Am is trying to ignore the deficiencies in the draft EIR by implying that the Ag Land Trust deceived the Partisan and its readers.
“Being an apologist for Cal Am’s illegal takings of property rights and the California Public Utilities Commission’s ‘gang that can’t shoot straight’ must be very tiresome for the Cal Am cheerleaders. What newspaper writes an article without checking the facts, or calling the party whose property rights are being taken, or relying solely on a person whose massive mistake will undermine the timeline of the CPUC. By the article, it appears that they are trying to undercut the credibility of the Ag Land Trust, which is objecting to Cal Am’s intentional illegal taking of the trust’s groundwater rights and supplies without compensation, and to undercut the credibility of the Partisan, because they do not like Proprietor Editor Royal Calkins, who took the time to check his facts and visit the well.”
The Partisan directed several questions to the author of the Pine Cone report, but his only response was to repeat that Zigas said the well is permanently out of commission.
Although I am generally supportive of California American Water’s effort to build a desalination plant to solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water problems, I have less faith in Cal Am’s public relations department. They just don’t seem to grasp the basic realities of modern household plumbing and water use.
About two and a half years ago in a blog post, I challenged Cal Am’s excuses for sudden unexplained spikes in some people’s water bills. Cal Am argued that they were caused by “silent” toilet leaks, which is baloney because toilet valves made in the last 30 years or so are designed to make noise when there are even small leaks.
Sometime between then and now Cal Am ran ads about fixing shower leaks. They had a photo of an attractive lady taking a pipe wrench to a shower head, which was oh so very wrong! Shower leaks, like all faucet leaks, occur at the valves – the handles where you turn the water on – not where the water comes out. Pipe wrenches don’t work on faucet valves, and if you used one on a shower head you’d scratch the finish so badly you’d have to buy a new one.
The latest bit of nonsense was printed on a flyer that came with our last water bill. The theme of the flyer was that saving water also saves energy. It had the usual advice, take shorter showers, install more efficient appliances — most of it common sense stuff that’s been drilled into our heads since the 1970s.
But one piece of advice made absolutely no sense. It said “Run the dishwasher with a full load once a week instead of twice and SAVE.” Now, if they had said “Run your dishwasher only when it’s full and not half empty” that would have made sense. But setting a once a week schedule is ridiculous.
Our two-person household packs a full dishwasher about every three days. If we only ran it once a week we’d have an enormous ceramic backlog in short order! Families with children probably fill their dishwashers at least every two days and maybe even daily. I think only a single person living alone could manage to get by on Cal Am’s suggested dishwashing schedule. Perhaps that is who wrote it, a single person. If anyone takes Cal Am’s suggestion seriously, they’ll probably hand wash everything that doesn’t fit in the weekly load and end up using more water while believing they’re using less.
Dishwashers aren’t even big water users. The water-saving dishwasher we bought last year uses only four gallons per load, every three days, which in our household works out to just two thirds of a gallon per person per day. Our old “wasteful” dishwasher used a little over five gallons per load. Even that was a wee bit less than a gallon per person per day. Compare that to most modern toilets, which use 1.5 gallons per flush, or a “water saving” shower head that pours out anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 gallons per minute, and you realize that dishwashers are nothing to worry about.
Speaking of showers, one of the best ways to save water is to install a flow control valve between the pipe coming out of the wall and your shower head. It allows you to quickly and easily adjust the amount of water from full blast down to a tiny dribble or anywhere in between depending on your need of the moment. You can save a good deal of water this way without having to rush your cleansing ritual. Since it doesn’t require fiddling with the faucet a shower head valve maintains a constant temperature and you don’t have to waste time and water readjusting it every time you turn the water back on. Used properly, you’d probably save enough water with a single shower to run the dishwasher two or three times. The valves are pretty easy to install even if you’ve never worked on plumbing before. Just don’t use a pipe wrench! A crescent wrench will do nicely. I’ll leave the full installation instructions to the hardware sales people. That’s what they get paid for.
James Toy is a Carmel native, currently living in Seaside, who occasionally gets involved in local political matters. He is the creator of a community oriented website called The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box at www.montereypeninsula.info. This commentary also appears on that site.
The 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.
Cal 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.
The Herald headline was “Cal Am: Desalination test well pumping better than expected” and the story had the utility gushing about gallonage but being less forthcoming about what is in the water being pumped by the Marina test well.
Steve Collins and Ron Weitzman saw Cal Am spin rather than substance. Here are their brief responses, in order.
Collins: After the snafus of Cal Am over the last couple of weeks, their PR department is in full swing sending positive pieces to the press in hopes someone will print it.
1. If you spend $7.5M on a test well is it not supposed to pump water?
2. CEQA requires the initial water received from the well to be tested for many variables, including salinity, TDS, brackish or fresh component, etc. The monitoring wells for Cal Am are being monitored by Dr. Dennis Williams who posts HOURLY results of the water coming from the associated monitoring wells. It takes weeks or months to tell us the composition of the slant well water? The County of Monterey employs folks who travel the County testing well water for the exact same things as noted herein, and they have a kit in their truck that gives them the result in minutes. Cal Am does not have these same tools?
3. The clumsy and foolish attempt to SELL Salinas Valley water back to the Salinas Valley obviously ended with a resounding thud for Cal Am. Would a “hail Mary” such as this not suggest Cal Am is well aware of the groundwater component of the slant well? Can you imagine why they might be waiting to release these results?
4. 1,800 gallons per minute is a measure of effectiveness, another measure required by CEQA is efficiency. Sooner or later Cal Am is going to be required to give the public the second measurement, as well. I wonder if any of the casings are cracked, leading to leakage of seawater into a fresh water aquifer? I wonder of the screens and pumps are properly located to ensure as little Salinas Valley aquifer water is being “taken”, as possible? I wonder if the shaft is at the proper angle or deep enough? I wonder if the power consumption is at projected usage or if the efficiency is on target?
Weitzman: Headlines in yesterday’s Herald make it look as though we are drowning in water, which is ironic since we are using less per person per day than about any other locality in the state. A number of people have been sending out skeptical emails about the “Cal Am: Test well pumping is exceeding expectations” story. One has called it a “puff” piece. An engineer expressed surprise about surpassing the 1,800 gallons-per-minute volume supposedly set as a goal. He thought that was exceedingly excessive for a slant well. My thought was it indicated much of the extracted water came from aquifer sources, a thought substantiated by Cal Am’s brazen proposal to sell any fresh-water component back to growers who own the rights to it. You must realize that the headline, for which you are not responsible, gave a misleading impression since it seemed, erroneously, to contradict the impression from last week’s story that the initial samples extracted were deficient in that they contained too much fresh water. Some of the people emailing me about yesterday’s story wondered why you did not ask about the salinity of the water extracted. In any event, it appears that Cal Am’s public-relations machinery is in full gear.
In case you missed it, the Weekly’s Sara Rubin had an important water story this week. Here it is. It’s about Cal Am Water and its plans for a desal plant in Marina and what happens if the plant, while sucking up ocean water, also sucks up Salinas Valley groundwater from a basin that extends to the shore. That wouldn’t be legal, but Cal Am figures it can find a way to make it legal AND to take that Salinas Valley groundwater and sell it back to its rightful owners.
The correct reaction to that is “Amazing!”
Leading candidates for the open seat on the California Public Utilities Commission include East Bay Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and former Central Coast legislator Fred Keeley, and that, as they say, is a win-win for those who would like to see the PUC return to its core mission of protecting the public interest.
Keeley’s name was forwarded to the governor by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and he is high on the short list. He would be an exceptionally good choice for the Central Coast because he knows all about the water shortages on the Peninsula and in coastal Santa Cruz County and would be in the perfect spot to shape the solution.
While Keeley was in the Assembly, he authored what came to be known as Plan B, a state policy statement favoring desalination instead of a new Carmel River dam as solution to the Peninsula’s water shortage. Though the Peninsula has struggled with that and other methods of addressing its severe water shortage, Keeley demonstrated considerable knowledge on both the political and technical fronts as he helped steer the process.
It’s an odd situation, but the PUC is in charge of the current effort to build a desalination plant to serve the Peninsula. As it stands, it has been content to let the Peninsula’s water purveyor, California American Water, mostly dictate the terms but someone with Keeley’s abilities on the commission could put the customers back into the equation.
During the state’s electricity crisis at the start of the century, Keeley was the Assembly’s point person on the exceedingly complex issue, advising both the Legislature and the governor’s office and negotiating with power producers and brokers.
Keeley, 64, a liberal Democrat, began his political career as an aide to Santa Cruz County supervisor Joe Cucchaira. He then became chief of staff to then-Assemblyman Sam Farr. He later served two terms on the Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors before campaigning for an Assembly seat in 1996. He served two terms and quickly gained the reputation as a leader in budgeting and the environment.
He left the Assembly in 2002 because of term limits and became executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, turning down an appointment to head the state Department of Finance under Gov. Gray Davis. In 2005 he was appointed Santa Cruz County treasurer and he was elected to the position the next year.
A spot is open on the commission because its battered president, Michael Peevey, opted to leave at the end of his term this month rather than seek reappointment. It was essentially a compromise intended to spare him the embarrassment of removal over revelations of the commission’s remarkably friendly relationship with PG&E, which it purportedly regulates.
Peevey is a former chief executive of PG&E’s southern counterpart, Southern California Edison.
Skinner, also a Democrat, doesn’t have the Central Coast connections that Keeley does but she has strong progressive credentials that suggest she would stand up rather than cozy up to the utilities.
She is leaving the Assembly this month because of term limits. She began her political career while she was a student at UC Berkeley, starting in student government and then becoming the first student elected to the Berkeley City Council. She earned degrees in natural resources and education.
While in the Assembly, Skinner distinguished herself in the areas of climate change and taxation.
Peninsula people who aren’t sure that desalination is the cure to the region’s water troubles are indebted to Del Rey Oaks Mayor Jerry Edelen. That’s because he makes no secret of one of the goals that will be in play when officialdom works to merge two local water agencies.
In a recent interview with the Carmel Pine Cone, Edelen said it is his hope that adding five appointed city representatives to the board of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District would reduce the influence of conservationists, slow growthers who are concerned about the potential development-inducing impact of a large desalination project.
Referring to the district’s existing board, Edelen said, “There are not enough votes representing the folks who need the water. For too many years, the water management district was run by those who did not want growth.”
Edelen is a member of another body made up of the mayors of the six Peninsula cities. It is called the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority, which was formed largely to advance Cal Am Water’s current proposal for a regional desalination plant. The mayors’ group is under increasing financial and political pressure to essentially wrap up its work, most likely by merging with the Peninsula Water Management District.
The Peninsula Water Management District was formed to promote conservation and seek additional water resources after the state ordered Cal Am in 1994 to reduce its reliance on the Carmel River. The water management district is governed by a board made up of five elected directors and two appointees representing the cities and the county. Each election turns into a contest between development-minded candidates and more environmentalist candidates, with each side essentially taking turns holding the majority.
While the water management district has led conservation efforts and has had success with aquifer storage projects, it is constantly accused of failing to produce any significant additional supply. Voters rejected an early effort to dam the river and Cal Am has made little real progress toward a desalination solution.
Meanwhile, the relatively new mayors’ group has been working closely with Cal Am to attempt to expedite that process while simultaneously controlling desalination costs and adding public oversight. With Cal Am’s venture encountering delay after delay, the mayors’ group sustained a blow politically and financially earlier this month when the county Board of Supervisors expressed steep reservations about formally signing on to the mayors’ group and continuing to help finance its work.
Representatives of the mayors’ group, led by Carmel’s Jason Burnett, are working on a plan to amend its shape and possibly its mission. At the mayors’ Oct. 9 meeting, Edelen proposed merging the group and its functions into the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. He said the resulting body would have more influence and greater efficiency. Edelen said the idea he is pitching, diluting the power of the environmentalists by altering the shape of the district board, originated with longtime board member Dave Pendergrass, mayor of Sand City.
In an editorial, the Pine Cone strongly supported the idea.
“Not long ago, you see, the water board … was dominated by environmental extremists who wanted nothing built, and they were willing to go so far to achieve this goal that they willfully stopped any new water from being developed,” the paper opined. “Horrible, yes, but true.”
“We think the mayors’ proposal is a good one, and we welcome a new era in land-use planning based on good public policy, not roadblock extremism.
The machinations come about while the Peninsula is under strong state pressure to step degrading the Carmel River and develop additional supplies. More than two decades after ordering reduced pumping, the state is now threatening to impose dramatic reductions starting in 2016 even though it is beyond obvious that construction of a desal plant could not even begin then much less reach completion. Burnett and other area officials are scheduled to meet with state representatives next months to plead for more time. Among their principal arguments is that reductions could cripple the hotel industry and other local commerce.
Conservationists and the growing number of Cal Am critics aren’t convinced that desalination is the answer, largely because it is a hugely expensive process that would inflate Peninsula water bills, already among the highest anywhere. They are pushing alternatives such as additional conservation, additional storage and reclamation of wastewater.
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.
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?
FRIDAY UPDATE: Marina City Council voted 3-2 late Thursday to deny Cal Am’s plan to proceed on test wells for desalination project. Cal Am expected to appeal to Coastal Commission. Detailed article in the Herald.
THURSDAY UPDATE: Marina City Council session on Cal Am test well proposal went until midnight Wednesday, with lots of Peninsula business interests speaking. Council to take up the issue again at 6 p.m. Thursday at Marina City Hall, 211 Hillcrest Ave.
UPDATE WITH LETTER TODAY FROM MARINA COAST WATER DISTRICT LAWYERS TO CITY OF MARINA: Letter Re. Appeal of California American Water Company (Cal Am) of the Denial by the City Planning Commission for a Coastal Deve (00265973xB0A85)
Forget what the agenda says about the Marina City Council meeting tonight. It makes it sound as though there will be a boring technical discussion about the hydrology and engineering ramifications of test wells Cal Am wants to drill along the Marina shoreline. What it really is, however, is a showdown between Marina, which is not in the Cal Am service area, and Cal Am’s interests on the Peninsula.
Some say the decision may be the most pivotal step this year in the long-running desalination saga. Some Marina officials don’t think there are many good reasons to be helpful to Cal Am, so Cal Am and its core supporters in the Peninsula business community are turning up the pressure.
For evidence of a power play in the making, there’s the instructions officials of Monterey Plaza Hotel issued last week to all the hotel employees living in Marina. They were told to go to the hotel’s personnel office one by one to talk to the personnel manager or his assistant about tonight’s meeting and to sign letters of support for Cal Am’s proposed desalination plant.
A note from personnel director Rick Salgado said his office would “educate” employees about the importance of speaking up at the public hearing, which precedes council discussion and possible action. Managers were told that none of the employees would be forced to sign the letters but were required to listen to the company message at the direction of hotel manager John Narigi. Narigi, of course, heads the Monterey County Hospitality Association’s water coalition and aggressively supports Cal Am.
It was not clear Wednesday whether the hotel’s Spanish-speaking employees would be provided with Spanish-language versions of the documents supporting the project.
Tonight’s session at Marina City Hall involves an appeal of the Marina Planning Commission’s earlier rejection of Cal Am’s test well program for the long-delayed desal plant that Cal Am now wants to build at the Cemex property on the shore in north Marina. The Planning Commission said no, based partly on technical concerns but also as an expression of Marina’s unsteady relationship with Cal Am. While Cal Am serves the entire Peninsula, Marina’s water purveyor is the Marina Coast Water District. At one time the Marina Coast district was a partner in the Cal Am desal venture but is now locked in pricey litigation over finances in that failed arrangement.
There are other issues in play as well. While Cal Am and its supporters in the business community have their eyes on a plant large enough to accommodate growth in Cal Am’s service area and beyond, the Marina council includes a strong environmentalist component that has been slow to support major development. Future development of Fort Ord, including the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development, also could be affected by the desal plant’s timetable and location.
The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at council chambers, 211 Hillcrest Ave. After a number of routine items, the hearing on the test wells is the first matter on the agenda.
When a water district or local government in California looks at water supply projects and determines that desalination is the way to go, the first question local taxpayers might want to ask is whether the agency is a member of CalDesal.
If it is, there’s a good chance the decision was made before the studies, before anyone looked at any other methodologies.
You probably haven’t heard of CalDesal. I’m a fairly serious student of California water issues and I hadn’t until Gary Patton mentioned it in his Land Use Report this week.
I’ll tell you more about the organization in a sec. First, though, I’d like to share its Desalination Pledge. Presumably the pledge has been taken by the entire membership, including 31 water private and public water purveyors, including our very own California American Water Co. and the city of Santa Cruz.
“I believe that in order to continue to have sufficient safe and reliable water supplies to provide for public benefit throughout the state, California must consider and develop all viable water supply sources. Therefore desalination and salinity management technology should continue to be developed with the encouragement of the state, its agencies and its municipalities.”
I’m glad to see the pledge didn’t end with the words “at all costs.”
Desalination is and probably should be considered a proper component of the measures being taken to ease the water shortage in many parts of California. For better or worse, it is part of the path the Monterey Peninsula is on as we try to ward off a state-ordered cutback in water use. But, for me at least, the existence of CalDesal and its oath have a backfire effect.
- Why does this expensive technology, which comes with some heavy environmental baggage, need a lobby?
- Why don’t directors of the various member agencies, such as the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, recognize that it looks funny for them to be paying into a group that also includes some 40 engineering firms, construction companies and others that would benefit handsomely from a boom in desalination projects?
- Why do they need an oath?
- Should someone write oaths to groundwater storage and recovery, conservation and wastewater treatment.
It’s no surprise that Cal Am is a CalDesal member. Several of the consulting and engineering firms it has worked with on the Monterey County desalination project are members. So is the Nossaman law firm in Sacramento, a key player in the continuing controversies over desalination’s past and future in Monterey County. As a private company, Cal Am isn’t constrained by the conflict-of-interest rules that govern public agencies, even if it is incorrectly listed in CalDesal paperwork as a public agency. Even so, here’s hoping the dues come out of profits instead of my water bill.
A quick effort to find out more about CalDesal turned up little. Its board chairman comes from a Southern California water district and its executive director, Ron Davis, formerly held the same position with the Association of California Water Agencies. That’s the group that worked closely with Cal Am to successfully fight the recent Measure O, which could have led to a public takeover of Cal Am.
I looked into the CalDesal address, looking for more clues. I expected to see that the group shared office space with the Association of California Water Agencies or the Nossaman firm. Instead, Suites 950 at 770 L St. in Sacramento is a glorified mail drop or, as they call them these days, a “virtual office.” As the sales literature says, “Impress your clients with a virtual address.”
I am impressed, though probably not the way they were hoping.