It will be interesting to see what the environmental review experts come up with when they dig into the “Final Environmental Impact Report” on the Monterey Downs project. Expect them to find plenty to talk about. It took the decidedly inexpert Partisan staff about 20 minutes to spot a fairly significant problem.
It isn’t the kind of thing that will stop the project but it will remind project critics, and there are many of them, to accept nothing at face value as they scour all those pages of dry discussion and even drier fine print.
The problem has to do with one word, “wide,” and how its absence rather dramatically changes the meaning of a section having to do with the project’s water supply, particularly the sustainability of the Salinas Valley groundwater basin.
Some quick, obligatory background. After a long delay, the city of Seaside on Friday released to the public the environmental impact report on the Monterey Downs project, a hotly contested plan to build a horse racetrack 1,280 housing units, an arena, hotels and other facilities on a nicely treed site at Parker Flats at Fort Ord. The EIR was prepared for the city by Michael Baker International of Irvine. It’s a thick and heavy document that includes tons of information, including numerous letters from government agencies and others, including supporters and opponents.
This EIR found numerous environmental issues of concern, including water, of course. It was well established before the environmental review began that while there may be enough water available to start the project, there isn’t enough to complete it. For that reason, developer Brian Boudreau and project supporters at City Hall hope to move ahead in phases while others work on developing an additional water supply.
The primary purveyor of water for the project would be the Marina Coast Water District, which does have plans for a desalination plant down the road. But the water district, MCWD, pumps a considerable amount of water out of the ground, including water from the Salinas Valley groundwater basin (SVGB), the principal source of irrigation water for the Salinas Valley.
Here’s where “wide” comes in. Strike that. Here’s where “wide” should come in.
Buried at the bottom of one long section about comments from other agencies, the EIR repeats several lines from the draft environmental impact report from a year and a half ago. It says, “The Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin has a large storage volume and is recharged by the Salinas River, which is augmented by upstream reservoirs managed by the MCWRA (Monterey County Water Resources Agency). Therefore, the aquifer does not experience variations due to climatic conditions.”
I put that last sentence in bold italics because that’s the key passage. It also caught the attention of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which wrote to the city in June 2015 about that and other water-related issues.
The letter, by district manager Dave Stoldt, said his agency monitors the groundwater basin, partly because what happens there affects what happens in the Seaside groundwater basin, which supplies much of the Monterey Peninsula. And, he continued, the draft EIR “presents no data or references that support the conclusion that ‘the SVGB does not experience variations due to climatic conditions.’”
Stoldt writes that there clearly is a connection between rainfall and the status of the Salinas basin.
“The overwhelming evidence for the SVGB is that over the long term, recharge from precipitation and reservoir storage releases does not match groundwater production, and the basin is in a condition of chronic overdraft. Any conclusion … that suggests otherwise should be removed and a statement that reflects the present understanding of the basin condition should take its place.”
The writers of the EIR addressed the issue by attributing the sentence in question. The EIR says, “This statement concerning SVBG was obtained from the Water Supply Assessment and Written Verification of Supply for the Monterey Downs Specific Plan (Schaaf & Wheeler, November 6, 2012) (pages 22-23).”
But, and you problably saw this coming, what the Water Supply Assessment and Written Verification of Supply for the Monterey Downs Specific Plan actually says on Page 22 is that “the aquifer does not experience wide variations due to climatic conditions.”
Emphasis added in hopes of sparking some discussion about the difference between no variations and some variations.
Big deal? Probably not. The project is not going to rise or fall over this one slip. But the makers of the EIR had 18 months to clean things up following the release of the draft environmental impact report, and a mistake like this suggests either a fairly substantial case of sloppiness or perhaps some inappropriate bias in favor of the project. Either is cause for concern as the experts dig in.
To read the report, click here.