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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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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. )

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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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business figurines placed under plastic coffee cupsThe Partisan will be relieved when conversation about Cal Am’s desalination project moves beyond the test well stage because the current discussion is simply too technical for the journalism and English major types who produce and consume most of the words on these pages.

Sometimes, however, circumstances force us to recognize the importance of science, technology and test wells. This seems to be one of those times for at least two reasons.

First, we are told that the California Coastal Commission has ordered the test well to stop testing because the groundwater level in and around the well is declining. That apparently comes as a surprise to Cal Am even though the well has been pumping something like 2,000 gallons a minute. That’s enough water to fill an Olympic-sized pool in less than six hours.

It seems, according to a report from hydrologists working for the state Public Utilities Commission, that groundwater in the area has dropped by more than a foot in recent weeks. Those same people say it’s no big deal, however. They say the water level has probably dropped because farm wells have been running lately in order to irrigate artichokes and broccoli fields nearby.

But wait a minute! Some of those same people, also working for Cal Am, have been telling us for the past year or so that there aren’t any farm wells in the area. Farms, yes, but each of them connected to the regional recycling program in Castroville. That’s what all those purple pipes and purple wells are about.

Cal Am and its hired hands have gone to great lengths to explain that the water underlying the proposed desalination plant site is too salty to support crops. Seawater intrusion. No one would want to water like that. That’s why the plant is proposed for that site. There’s all that seawater just sitting there itching to be made fresh.

The test well is supposed to predict what will happen to the groundwater and other features if Cal Am builds a desalination plant in the same spot, at the Cemex property on the beach near Marina. Among the big questions is whether desalination wells there would suck up too much fresh water that actually belongs to the folks with rights to water in the Salinas Valley basin.

So, to recap, hydrologists working for Cal Am and the state tell us that farms around the desalination plant site won’t affect the groundwater. Then after Cal Am’s test well pumps a heckuva lot of water and the groundwater level declines significantly, Cal Am tells us that the farms around the desalination plant must be to blame.

I’m thinking that if Cal Am’s explanation holds up, the company should get out of the water business and into the production and marketing of produce that thrives on seawater.

Unfortunately, that is not the only Cal Am-related contradiction of the day.

The existence or non-existence of usable water and other wells in the area is the topic of litigation between the Ag Land Trust and Cal Am. The Ag Land Trust maintains Cal Am doesn’t have any right to pump water from below the proposed site of the desalination plant. Cal Am says oh yes we do. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

Anyway, in connection with that litigation, ongoing in Santa Cruz Superior Court, Cal Am lawyers say that the test well, the one pumping 2,000 gallons per minute, is part of a temporary scientific test project that “will be constructed, operated and decommissioned over approximately 24 to 28 months.” In other words, don’t worry all that much about the well because we’re going to stop using it in a couple of years.

However, the draft environmental impact report for the project tells us that the test well will be incorporated into the desalination project and continue to be used for as long as desalination plants last.

As far as we can tell, the source of both those slices of information is the same. Consultants and hydrologists working for Cal Am. We’re also told that the information they provide for use in court papers and draft environmental impact reports is supposed to be submitted under oath.

Some may recall that the draft environmental impact report says people working for Cal Am and/or the PUC couldn’t even find the Ag Land Trust well near the test well. When we put on our Partisan boots to sample water drawn from that well, and posted video of water shooting from that very well, we had some questions, so we reached out to the fellow in charge of the environmental impact report. He hung up on us.

The Partisan contacted that fellow, Eric Zigas, again this week with the question of why some folks say the well is temporary and the same folks say it is permanent. Lurking behind that question, of course, are the larger questions of whether environmental impact reports are supposed to be accurate and what happens if they aren’t. We’re told that there are laws about those things.

Zigas didn’t hang up on us this time. That’s because we contacted him by email. In his first response, he essentially told us to read the EIR. We did that and got back to him with the same question that prompted our inquiry in the first place. This time he replied with a simple “no comment.”

For the purposes of keeping the lines of communication open, we’ll pose our latest question to him here. The EIR indicates that the team that produced the EIR had evaluated the test well’s potential impact as a permanent feature of the desal plant. We’re told that there are very different requirements for studying environmental impacts of temporary and permanent features. We’re curious about whether the money spent on that work will be refunded to Cal Am customers if it turns out that the well is only meant to be temporary. Mr. Zigas is welcome to respond by the method of his choosing but, just to be clear, we’re hoping for an actual answer.

Enough for now, but if you’ve read this far and don’t know about the flap above the slant well patents, it would be a shame if we didn’t include a link here to a new Monterey Country Weekly story about how one of the fellows deeply involved in all the stuff you read about above is the patent holder for the slant well process that Cal Am is trying out. The problem, of course, is how do you trust someone to accurately test something when the results could affect the amount of money in his pocket.

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