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Think your Cal Am bill is big now? Just wait

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Cal Am sign at job site

The sign declaring “Your water bill at work” is, in the eyes of water activist Michael Baer, a big, fat lie.

It is posted at a worksite in Monterey where crews are installing a 36-inch water transmission line that eventually will be used to transport Cal Am water.

The problem, says Baer, is that the bills paid by Cal Am customers for the most expensive water in the country do not yet include the costs of the pipeline. That cost was originally estimated at $40 million but the pricetag has since risen to $53 million. What that means, Baer says, is that it is future Cal Am water bills that will be paying for the work. In other words, another rate increase.

In recent years, Cal Am has been authorized to charge more and more, sometimes just to maintain its profit margin and at other times for special reasons. For instance, Baer noted, the current bills include the cost of removing San Clemente Dam, which had silted up because Cal Am failed to maintain it. They also include a $40 million-plus award to Cal Am to cover the cost of water that wasn’t used because of conservation efforts by customers.

“Our water bills, the most expensive in the country according to Food & Water Watch, do not reflect a single penny collected towards paying for the Monterey pipeline costs,” Baer said.

Also still to come on water bills are incomplete slant well test as part of Cal Am’s desalination project. That 27-month test was initially pegged to cost $4 million. It’s around $16 million now, Baer said.

And then, of course, added on to the water bills will be the cost of the desalination plant itself. Early on, it was estimated to cost $280 million. Regardless of whether it ever gets built, the state will enable Cal Am to bill customers for its expenses.

Michael Baer is a retired public school science teacher,  a 30-plus year resident of the Monterey Peninsula, and a water activist.

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On April 13, Cal Am wrote a letter to the Peninsula Mayors Water Authority, responding to a letter from Public Water Now and other parties citing “alarming deficiencies” on the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project (MPWSP). The letter from Public Water now cited lack of water rights and poor science surrounding the slant well ocean intakes proposed for the Cal Am desalination plant.

The Cal Am letter was signed by desal project manager Ian Crooks. An excerpt follows:

The most definitive and best science to determine the feasibility of slant wells is to drill and operate an actual slant well in the proposed project location and observe its performance. Cal Am’s test slant well at the CEMEX property in Marina has accomplished just that and proven unequivocally over its 480 days of pumping that slant wells are a feasible technology for our project. The important indices are yield, reliability and water quality, and results in all three areas are outstanding. (Italics and bold added)

I wish to rebut this statement as vigorously as I can.

Traditional “scientific method” would support Mr. Crooks’ first sentence. Scientific method requires a hypothesis, and the hypothesis of this “experiment” is that a slant well can sustain a continuous extraction rate of 2,000 gallons per minute (gpm) from the proposed location without harming the groundwater. Extensive modeling by notorious hydrogeologist Dennis Williams, president of GeoSciences, was presented in the first environmental impact report iteration in 2015, and was modified by HydroFocus and Lawrence Livermore Labs in the recirculated version now pending. This extensive modeling “finds” that the hypothesis is correct and therefore that the damage to the existing surrounding coastal aquifers of the Salinas Valley River Basin is “insignificant.”

This is where a test slant well comes into play: To test the modeling work with a field test. This is also sound experimental design based on the scientific method. However, it is at this point I must diverge from Mr. Crooks and his statement highlighted in bold above. Let’s examine the “outstanding” results of the thre indices, one at a time: Reliability, yield and water quality.

Reliability

The long-term pumping test began on April 22, Earth Day, 2015, which was 722 days before Mr. Crooks’ letter to the mayors. Assuming he accurately represents that the pumping had continued for 480 days as of April 13, that means the pump had been idle for 242 days, or just over 33 percent of the total time. Who in their right mind would rate a 67 percent reliability performance as outstanding? When I was going to public high school that rate of performance was known as “a D.”

Yield

CalAm has consistently made claims, widely reported in the local papers and public meetings, that the slant well yield has “exceeded expectations,” steadily drawing between 2,000 and 2,200 gallons per minute (gpm) when it is operating. But here is the problem. There is no evidence or data to support the claim within the public sphere. The current EIR presents no such information. The Hydrological Working Group (HWG), a team of hydrogeologists including Dr. Williams, monitor and measure the well’s performance as required by its permit issued by the California Coastal Commission. The HWG is required to post weekly reports on the public website www.watersupplyproject.org and submit monthly reports to the acting director of the Coastal Commission, which are also posted on the website. The monthly reports are nearly 1,000 pages, reporting minutiae gathered electronically every five-15 minutes about the groundwater and salinity levels at the monitoring wells. Yet the yield results about how many gallons of brackish water are being sucked through the slant well and tossed out to sea through the existing outfall pipe appear nowhere in any of the documentation of these lengthy reports.

As far as “yield exceeding expectations,” you will just have to take Cal Am’s word for it, and surprisingly, everyone seems to (and are damned jolly that it is going so well!) However, in my experience, I have learned to never take Cal Am’s word for anything. Except when they tell us our rates are going up. I always believe them then.

Water Quality

Cal Am reports about water quality are focused solely on the level of salinity of the water drawn through the slant well. The company hopes for a salinity percentage as high as possible. The higher the seawater percentage (i.e. the percent salinity of the brackish water), the lower the percentage of fresh water coming from the landward aquifers and the less water that has to be delivered to Castroville to satisfy the agency act in the “return water agreement.” The agreement is a ridiculous plan cobbled together by politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers that could cost ratepayers millions of additional dollars annually and would require an entire essay to describe its stupidity in detail.) These folks are relatively pleased that the salinity was recently measured at 92 percent seawater. However, the percolating winter deluge will likely dilute that percentage, pumping even more freshwater out to sea this spring. They predict and hope that salinity at the slant well will rise to the target level 96 percent seawater or higher once they install sevem more production slant wells, and start sucking out groundwater at over 10 million gallons per day.

You might be wondering how such a volume of pumping could be expected to have “insignificant impact” on the surrounding aquifers and so do I. It seems like magic, and I suspect magical thinking here regardless of what the extensive modeling in the EIR predicts. Fortunately, the test slant well experiment has provisions to collect data on this aspect. Monitoring wells in the area help determine what is going on in the groundwater near the slant well pump.

So, what has happened at the threshold monitoring well in the 480 days out of 722 of the long-term pumping test as of April 13, 2017? The answer is that the salinity has steadily and “very slightly” risen by over 25 percent in that time. That is an alarming number! This result is further accentuated by the fact that in the 26 days prior to the beginning of any slant well pumping (the only baseline there is at the site) the salinity at the threshold well actually dropped by 2.2 percent.

Rising salinity at this spot indicates significant rising seawater intrusion into the basin. Mr. Williams and the HWG claim that these results are unrelated to the impact of a single test slant well operating only 67 percent of the time. They say it is for other reasons, but they do not quantify nor verify those claims with data.

The science is poor because the scientists have a predetermined outcome that goes beyond normal bias. But what can you expect when you are examining science reports from Cal Am and its Crooks?

Michael Baer is a retired public school science teacher,  a 30-plus year resident of the Monterey Peninsula, and a local water activist.

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????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.

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DSCN0048

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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