This probably will not surprise you. The people who are supposed to be in charge of solving the Monterey Peninsula’s water crisis have elected to go into some hugely important negotiations with state water regulators under the cloak of secrecy.
Apparently they have forgotten, once again, that secrecy is one of the main reasons the Peninsula is still in a water crisis. Let one lawyer find an excuse for secrecy and the people who are supposed to be representing the public interest in this big and expensive water mess will cheerfully exclude the public from the conversation and then act as though they had no choice.
One possibility is that officials of California American Water, the Peninsula mayors and others simply believe that their jobs will be easier without the muss and fuss that the public is so capable of producing.
A more ominous and more likely explanation is that they fear the results will not be heavily weighted in favor of Cal Am and others such as the hospitality industry, which speaks with a loud voice when it counsels the mayors and other officials both elected and appointed.
This time, the secrecy has been wrapped around details of a proposal that was advanced to the state last month. It advocates a relaxation of the state-imposed timeline for cutting back on the amount of water that Cal Am pumps from the Carmel River each year.
In order to force the Peninsula to stop degrading the river, the state set a series of deadlines and pumping limits that, if they go into effect, would devastate the Peninsula’s economy. The negotiations that are likely to begin this summer between local interests and the state are of utmost importance to everyone on the Peninsula – and by everyone, we’re talking about everyone, not just those who take lunch regularly with lawyers and lobbyists.
An article in the Monterey Herald on Saturday has Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett assuring us that there will be plenty of time for public involvement later, after local officialdom has hammered out a tentative agreement with the state. There will be public hearings, Burnett said, suggesting that public officials pay attention to what the public says at public hearings after the powers that be have reached consensus.
Even by the standards of Cal Am and its elected accomplices, this decision to keep the public in the dark rests on exceedingly flimsy grounds. Once upon a time there was a lawsuit challenging the state’s right to order a cutback on Carmel River pumping. The suit was suspended three years ago, but lawyers for the state determined that details of the current proposal are exempt from disclosure because of that litigation. Among the many problems with that position is a lawsuit suspended three years ago is, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Another is that lawyers for the state are not decision-makers. They are supposed to give advice. If members of the state water board want to tell the citizens of the Peninsula to pound sand, let them come out and tell us why.
As a direct result of the state’s cutback order, Cal Am has embarked on two major efforts to build a desalination plant, the most expensive solution but a solution. The first effort emerged from more than a year of secret discussions involving the state Public Utilities Commission, Cal Am, Monterey County government, UC Santa Cruz, and the Marina Coast Water District. It was to be a desalination plant operated by Cal Am and Marina Coast, a small, essentially dysfunctional water agency with no real connection to Peninsula issues. Monterey County government, which prefers to operate in smoky back rooms, brought almost nothing to the table but managed to inject secret side deals into the project, sabotaging the venture early on.
Perhaps the officials thought that secrecy would result in some efficiencies and a streamlined, feasible project. Instead, they got themselves an exploding cigar. If they had brought the public in from the start rather than waiting until the cigar was being lit, someone might have shown them that the design was flawed.
That farce cost Cal Am five or six years worth of progress toward a water solution and all-but destroyed the public’s faith in the company’s ability to get the job done. Already, Cal Am is lobbying the state to allow it to charge its customers, not its shareholders, for the cost of the huge fines that will be imposed if the deadlines are not met.
One of the biggest problems with the first desalination effort also afflicts the current one, though to a slightly lesser extent. The first time around, no one was in charge. Technically, the Public Utilities Commission was the “lead agency,” then as now. But the PUC is a regulatory bureaucracy, not a utility, not a construction company. It doesn’t employ engineers or hydrologists. Cal Am was sort of in charge, then and now, but it had no real reason to lead because it makes money no matter what. For regulated utilities, failure is just as profitable as success and sometimes more so. When state rules essentially allow it to collect all its costs plus a 10 percent profit, two failed projects are likely to be more lucrative than one successful one.
Marina Coast wasn’t in charge and Monterey County certainly wasn’t in charge. But if the structure of the first project had been presented to the public from the start rather than as an afterthought, someone might have noticed the absence of meaningful leadership. In the public arena or in private enterprise, things usually don’t get done unless someone’s career will rise or fall depending on the result. The first effort failed largely because the public was never a partner and no one was accountable. The public sector culprits got re-elected. The private sector culprits got bonuses.
The structure of the current effort is less complicated. Neither Marina Coast nor the county is involved, but a committee of Peninsula mayors has stepped forward to take their place. Burnett, the Carmel mayor, took a lead role in creating that relationship and deserves serious credit for doing so. He saw how lack of leadership and accountability helped kill the first attempt, so he stepped up, tying his own considerable political ambitions to the venture. He has been a real help, creating a financial structure that would save the public tens of millions of dollars if the project ever is completed, but he has paid a price. His efforts have alienated Cal Am critics and slow-growthers who see a desalination plant as a growth inducer.
Unfortunately, Burnett seems to be going along with the cone-of-silence plan this time. He was left to explain it in the Herald article, likely because the others involved were afraid to stick their necks out. Maybe he has simply spent too much time with the others and has been “turned,” the way hostages become dupes of their captors. Hopefully, it is not too late.
In case you’re not getting the drift, Jason, this piece is an attempt to get you to argue against this secrecy routine or to let us know who feels otherwise and why.
What is the benefit of secrecy? Simplicity is the most obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. Information is power, and you can bet that Cal Am is already sharing details of the proposal with its allies – the Hospitality Association and the Carmel River Steelhead Association for starters. That way, those groups can spend the next several months lobbying the state and working with associates in other organizations to join in. That way, those groups will have ample time to study all the charts and formulas and to bend the analysis to their liking.
Almost everyone on the Peninsula would support a relaxation of the state’s deadlines. No one wants to see our economy dry up and blow away. But how many years might be added to the timeline under this proposal? Are there concessions to be made later? Earlier? Are there provisions for cutting supplies to some classes of customers but not others. Cal Am, the PUC and even the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District took part in essentially secret talks two years ago that resulted in a preferential rate structure for area hotels.
If you’re part of an average household on the Peninsula, secrecy is not your friend. It won’t help solve the water problem but it will help Cal Am and its friends at the PUC quietly pick your pocket.
What can you do? Don’t bother calling Cal Am. It stopped paying attention to you years ago. But you can and should call your mayor or your state representatives and tell them you’ve had enough of this nonsense.