If Jason Burnett was injured during his political struggles in Carmel or his controversial efforts to promote the Cal Am desalination project, he hides his wounds well. On a recent Friday he seemed more relaxed than he had in years as he prepared to immerse himself in a project with no political or policy overtones. He carried a giant chainsaw in the back of his pickup and was heading off to slice a dead black walnut tree into slabs to be turned into furniture.
During a break from the morning’s discussion, he showed off cell phone photos of some of the pieces he had previously crafted from redwood and the Big Sur cabin that he had brought back to life. He was more relaxed than ever and smiling like he does when he his son is the topic. He talked about the trip his little family will make soon into the north woods in search of relaxation and trout.
Burnett, 39, spoke proudly of his extremely active role in the desalination project and says he doesn’t worry about the criticism he has received for working so closely with rapacious Cal Am, which in some quarters is seen as a corrupter of public policy on the Central Coast. The way Burnett sees it, if people understood what he and associates have accomplished, they’d be “celebrating instead of criticizing.”
Public-ownership advocate George Riley, the most knowledgeable water activist on the Peninsula, agrees that Burnett has made several important and positive contributions to the desal venture, jeopardizing his political standing in the process. But at the same time, Burnett as a leader of the mayors’ water authority, spent “gobs of public money” and “ignored all the other water costs piling up on the ratepayers,” Riley said.
Burnett is no longer mayor of Carmel. He chose not to run for re-election this year following a period of great contentiousness that saw several city employees cut loose, followed by sizable public protest and, finally, the very public departure of the city manager that Burnett and his City Council allies had installed. It was made worse by terribly lopsided coverage in the weekly newspaper, whose publisher had felt disrespected by the manager. Whatever the cause, it placed another large speed bump in the path of Burnett’s political career.
He remains involved in the desalination project, though not in an official role. While he was on the Carmel City Council, he helped form the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority in order to give Peninsula mayors and residents some say in Cal Am’s tremendously controversial and equally expensive desalination venture. Now, at least when he’s not out fishing, he will serve as an unofficial adviser to the new president of the authority, Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Kampe.
“A few months from now I hope he won’t be needing any input from me,” Burnett said in an interview that jumped from desal to Carmel politics to his love of fly-fishing, something he learned from his father and grandfather, David Packard of computer fame.
Foolishly or courageously depending on how it turns out, Burnett did something no other Peninsula politician dared. He stuck his neck out and provided some local leadership for the desalination project. Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter for years had been in the best position to assume that role by virtue of his membership on the Peninsula water management board, his past membership on the Coastal Commission and his numerous other associations. But when he did become involved, behind the scenes at the county level, the result was a nest of conflicting interests that unraveled the initial attempt at a desal plant for the Peninsula.
Though it has cost Burnett political capital locally, he jumped into the whirlpool with both feet and had some serious successes. Most importantly, considering the venture’s hefty pricetag, he helped create a bond-financing structure that reduces the project’s cost to Cal Am customers by 20 percent or more. He also helped create an oversight body that provides the public with a limited measure of scrutiny over the project, which is now penciled for completion in five years though the construction schedule has been and remains highly elastic.
But by becoming so closely involved in the project, and by working so closely with Cal Am, Burnett’s stock slid sharply in progressive circles over the past several years. He believes, without belaboring it, that his reputation has suffered unfairly simply because of the company’s reputation. Part of an international utility conglomerate, it has come under constant attack over the high and rising cost of its water locally, its general arrogance in dealing with its customers and its reliance on deceptive advertising to beat back a couple of efforts to start a public takeover of its local operations.
The company does have its allies, mostly in the hospitality industry, which fears great business losses if the desalination venture continues to sputter and the state makes good on its threat to severely cut the Peninsula’s use of Carmel River water. But Burnett seems unlikely to regain his political momentum unless and until a desal plant is up and running and running well.
As recently as five years ago, Burnett was seen as a likely replacement for U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, the Central Coast’s longtime representative in Congress. Though he never said he was going for that seat, the troubles in Carmel and his association with desal put an end to that talk. Simultaneously, the Peninsula watched Jimmy Panetta’s star rise, making favorite son Leon Panetta’s actual son the odds on favorite to take over for Farr.
According to Burnett, the desalination project is being embraced elsewhere as “the most environmentally advanced desalination plant” despite the picture its local detractors have painted.
He ticked off the environmental pluses.
- The slant-well technology, which has led to considerable controversy and delay, but Burnett says ongoing testing of the technology is proving to be a great success. The result will be a water intake process that causes relatively little harm to ocean life.
- The appropriate size, big enough to help prevent water rationing but not big enough to promote additional development.
- The locatio, one of the best possible along the bay, next to the Cemex plant north of Marina, which is no longer pristine and creates no habitat or erosion issues. It is also close enough to the Marina landfill to create the possibility of being powered by electricity produced by the burning of methane created at the waste site.
- The $10 million plan to use underwater diffusers if necessary to disburse the brine if it accumulates at the bottom of the bay below the waste-water outflow.
“I’m really proud of what we have done,” Burnett said. “We will be able to demonstrate that we can do desal in an environmentally sensitive way.”
But what about the cost? Peninsula water customers will be paying well over $400 million for the plant, not counting various related costs, and that’s on top of Cal Am bills that already are some of the highest in the nation.
Certainly that’s a large concern, Burnett acknowledged, but the community has no choice but to move ahead because the alternative is to continue killing the Carmel River and the habitat it supports.
Burnett said he grew up fishing on the river and is motivated more than anything by a desire to preserve and restore it. In his view, continuing to drain the river in violation of state water policy would have been both illegal and unconscionable.
“If we had continued on the same trajectory, the steelhead would be dead. I think in the long run that it will be recognized that this was absolutely the right thing to do both for the ocean and the river.”
Riley, the leader of Public Water Now, gives Burnett high marks in several areas, especially his work to create a public governance committee that has some oversight powers over the process and, eventually, the actual operation of the plant.
Riley said Burnett “became enormously knowledgeable, more so than any non-water professional,” but may have taken too much credit for some of the progress. He said Dave Stoldt of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District deserves serious credit for helping put together the bond package that will shave costs from the project and for the related ground water recovery program, along with Paul Sciuto of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency.
So what’s next for Burnett, whose family money creates a long list of options? Before jumping into local politics, he was the managing partner of Clean Fund, an investment firm specializing in renewable energy projects, and before that he was associate deputy director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he specialized in climate change and greenhouse gas issues.
If he has a plan, he wasn’t sharing it that day, though rumor has it that he’s likely to play some role in the Clinton presidential campaign. He mentioned only the upcoming fishing trip, and the retro trailer he plans to tow behind the truck, and said simply, “I’m going to take some time off.”
Proprietor’s note: Silicon Valley lawyer Leor Pantilat’s excellent blog, “Leor Pantilat’s Adventures,” includes this section on the Carmel River Gorge.