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Monterey Downs EIR might not survive close inspection

Business people horse racingIt 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.

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????As ideas go, this one was short-lived, lasting just long enough for the feds to get wind of it.

It first raised its head at the June 22 meeting of the Monterey County Water Resource Agency, the arm of Monterey County government that is mainly responsible for ensuring that the growers of the Salinas Valley get enough water for their crops.

The idea was put in the form of a motion: Let us consider easing the the impact of the drought by using just about every ounce of water stored in the county-owned Nacimiento Reservoir. Put another way, let’s open the floodgates so that the flow reaches 250 to 300 cubic feet per second rather than the minimal seasonal level of 60 cubic foot per second designed to provide some irrigation water while also maintaining the riparian habitat and the wildlife it supports.

It took only one day for the idea to travel all the way to the offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency charged with protecting the ocean environment and the waterways that sustain it.

It took four pages for NOAA to say what it thought of the idea, but it can be summarized in two words. No way!

In a letter of July 1, recently obtained by the Partisan, regional NOAA official Gary Stern said reducing the flows so dramatically would severely jeopardize the already threatened steelhead population.

National fisheries experts believe “the highly impaired status of the population has been further impacted by the prolonged drought conditions, which has greatly restricted or eliminated migration for adult and smolt life stages,” Stern wrote. “…The lack of river flow has precluded all steehead reproduction for at least the last two years and the potential for reproduction the previous two years was very low, if any.”

Stern said the flow was seriously impaired in 2014-15 in part because of the limited storage in the Nacimiento and San Antonio reservoirs and the operation of the Salinas Valley Water Project in back to back dry years, 2012 and 2013. The water project is a principal provider of irrigation water to Salinas Valley farms.

“Implementation of the proposed flow release plan would result in an acceleration depletion of the remaining reservoir storage and would increase the likelihood of precluding a third consecutive steelhead year-class from reproducing,” Stern wrote. Reducing the flow as proposed by county officials would “provide temporary benefits to a very limited number of stakeholders and beneficial uses” while likely resulting in “mortality to all aquatic species present.”

In other words, don’t even think about it.

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billete monedaPROPOSED CAMPAIGN SPENDING LIMITS: GOOD PUBLIC POLICY OR A POLITICAL PLOY?

A couple weeks back the Monterey County Planning Commission narrowly approved plans for a 185-home subdivision to be known as Ferrini Ranch along Highway 68 between Monterey and Salinas. Opposition from environmentalists and neighbors focused on traffic congestion and the uncertain water supply. Wells in the area near Toro Park have been dropping steadily, and a county-imposed moratorium on development remains in place.

But not to worry, said one of the favorable planning commissioners, Jose Mendez. The water basin may be overdrafted already, but the county government’s Water Resources Agency hasn’t raised alarms about the water issue. Mendez said that if county officials say it’s OK, it must be OK.

If the water agency “won’t step up and say there’s no water, then there must be water,” said Mendez.

There is a real problem with Mendez’s logic, however. He seems to think that county officials are neutral arbiters, that they are there to protect the interests of everyone. He forgets that when it comes to major land-use decisions, concerned neighbors and others are at a huge disadvantage for one simple reason: Campaign contributions. Planning commissioners don’t receive contributions but county supervisors will make  the final decision on Ferrini Ranch and they most definitely do.

While a supervisor would be unlikely to personally lobby a water resources employee to fudge in favor of a developer, a large bureaucracy such as county government presents any number of  indirect routes for persuasive messaging.

The Ferrini Ranch project has been in the works in one form or the other for decades. The Kelton family of Southern California developed the Toro Park subdivision across Highway 68 from the hilly project site. The length of their wait will be cited by supporters as one reason the Board of Supervisors should approve the venture, something the supervisors will be inclined to do anyway. The years of waiting have provided the Keltons with plenty of opportunities to make financial contributions to the supervisors.

In one case, though, time worked against the Keltons. One of their favorite contribution recipients has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, and he’s on his way out of office.

In June 2010, while Calcagno faced a primary election challenge from Ed Mitchell, a Kelton-owned company contributed $4,750 to the Calcagno campaign. Two days after Calcagno’s victory in that election, the Keltons’ builder, Ray Harrod, contributed $4,500 more, according to county election records.

Earlier, Mark, Richard and David Kelton each contributed $500 to Calcagno’s campaign.

Though that money might be considered wasted, the Keltons were undaunted. They surveyed the political landscape and kept writing checks to other board members and to the man who will replace Calcagno.

Like Calcagno did four years ago, retired Judge John Phillips defeated Mitchell in last week’s election and will represent the north county supervisorial district, District 2.

Though the Kelton’s project is in District 5,  represented by Dave Potter, Phillips started getting Ferrini Ranch-related contributions in March, receiving $2,000 from Harrod and Harrod Construction. In May, Richard, Mark and David Kelton each contributed $350 to Phillips.

Because those contributions came in so close to the upcoming Board of Supervisors vote on the project, the Partisan emailed Phillips and his campaign manager, Plasha Will, to ask whether he would return the money. After four days, there had been no response.

The Keltons also care about representation in the other districts as well. Mark Kelton contributed $500 to District 1 Supervisor Fernando Armenta in April 2012. They were able to economize in Armenta’s case because the Salinas-based supervisor has never voted against a development project.

Early in 2010, when it appeared the Ferrini Ranch project was about to reach the supervisors, each of the three Keltons contributed $500 to District 3 Supervisor Simon Salinas, who has been nearly as pro-development as Armenta. Then, last year, David and Mark Kelton each contributed $250 to Salinas while Ray Harrod contributed $300.

They did not overlook Potter. After all, the project is in his district. The Keltons have made campaign contributions here for many years, since before they build the Toro Park subdivision, but records from before 2005 weren’t immediately available in the past week. The first available record of a payment to Potter was from October 2006 when David and Richard wrote checks for $250 and Mark coughed up $500.

Two years later, the trio gave those same amounts.

In April 2008 Potter received $500 from the David and Lenora Kelton Family Trust and $500 each from Richard and Mark Kelton. In 2011, the contributions amounted to $600 from each of the three Keltons.

Since 2006, the total obvious contributions from the Keltons amounted to $20,400, not a large amount by modern campaign standards but certainly enough to assure them of audiences with the supervisors. Most of those contributions were clearly reported as having come from the Keltons or Harrod but the $4,750 check to Calcagno in June 2010, during the primary campaign, was from a Kelton entity called Allied Farming.

One Ferrini opponent, who asked not to be named for fear of offending the supervisors, said, “Our main tool is getting large numbers out for the hearings but it’s really too late by then because the supervisors have made their decisions even before the checks have cleared the bank.”

With Supervisor Jane Parker unlikely to vote for a project with a questionable water supply and other issues, one logical scenario has the project winning approval on a 3-2 vote, with Potter able to vote with the minority so as not to ruffle feathers within his district. Another scenario makes Phillips a swing vote, putting the new supervisor to an early test.

Some of the supervisors did receive contributions from environmental interests and construction unions over the same stretch of time. Potter, for instance, received contributions from Mitchell in 2011 as well as Chris Fritz, who then headed the LandWatch organization. In 2013, Potter’s campaign opponent, Marc del Pierro, received substantial contributions from environmentalists, including more than $100,000 from an environmental trust established from the proceeds of a lawsuit aimed at preventing another major development project.

Contributions such as those to del Piero will help shape the upcoming discussion as the supervisors consider a new proposal to limit the size of contributions. Supervisors Potter and Salinas last week asked the county staff to prepare an ordinance that would mimic the limits set in state races, $4,100 from individual contributors and $8,200 from committees. County contributions here are essentially unlimited, and unlike some jurisdictions the county doesn’t bar supervisors from voting on matters affecting contributors.

Potter said he wants limits because special interests are becoming too important in county races. In the recent sheriff’s race, successful challenger Steve Bernal received at least $165,000 from a relative, helping him outspend incumbent Scott Miller more than 5 to 1.

While Potter will receive public interest points for the move, environmentalists are already questioning whether he is acting out of sincere concern for the process or merely trying to weaken potential campaign opponents. He is up for re-election in 2016 and Potter may be trying to ward off a repeat of the 2013 election when environmentalist money beefed up del Piero’s treasury.

The Monterey County Weekly speculated last week that potential Potter opponents include prosecutor Jimmy Panetta, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett and United Way executive Mary Adams.

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