The water supply project – what’s happening now
and what’s needed to postpone the drastic cutbacks

by Roger Dolan

Much has happened since the first installment of this article was drafted in late 2017. To understand current happenings, we first need to understand the regulatory framework. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) is the agency that demanded the reduction in withdrawals from the Carmel River Aquifer. SWRCB subsequently ruled that any seawater taken to supply a desalination plant cannot be taken directly through a screened intake but must be withdrawn below the ground surface unless that option is proven infeasible. The revised deadline for the reduced pumping is 2021, but a 1000 acre-foot per year (afy) reduction in current withdrawals (probably requiring rationing) will happen if CalAm is unable to get California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) and Coastal Commission approval for a supply project by September 2018. The current CalAm proposal is a 6.4 million gallons per day (mgd) desalination project coupled with approved 3500 afy of recycled water. Slant wells to supply the desal source water would comply with the subsurface requirement.

CPUC has scheduled the release of the Final EIR for the CalAm project for March 2018 and the decision on project approval for June 2018. If the project faced no objections there would be enough time to meet the September SWRCB deadline. However, serious challenges have been raised and CPUC has instigated a confidential conflict resolution process with the hope that the proponents and challengers can work out a settlement agreement that would resolve the conflicts.

The confidential conflict resolution process involves 32 stakeholders with positions that range from:

a. no more water is needed beyond the current 3500 afy recycled project;

b. an additional 2250 afy is needed but an expanded recycled water alternative is available which should have been considered;

c. the project will damage existing Salinas Valley groundwater users.

Some stakeholders even wish to make the project bigger. It seems highly unlikely that there will be a settlement agreement.

Anticipating this, several Peninsula agencies have asked CPUC to hold a hearing in April to consider an expanded recycled water project and purchase of surplus Marina Coast Water District water that will meet current demands without desal. A smaller desal could be used to supply water for future growth, but there will be more time to work on that.

If CPUC holds the requested hearing and agrees to consider expanding the recycled water project, the likely options would be either the approval of the 6.4 mgd project as presented, risking a flood of lawsuits, or the expansion of the CalAm’s Water Purchase Agreement to cover the increased production. If expanded recycled water is chosen, Monterey One Water, the recycling agency, will need to firm up agreements for the source water and do an addendum on the EIR for its ongoing recycled water project.

Public Water Now is currently circulating petitions for a November 2018 election on the buyout of CalAm. If this initiative is passed, the Water Management District would conduct a feasibility study and if favorable, would acquire the CalAm system. This action would not impact the SWRCB requirements but it would remove CPUC from the approval process and make the provision of the best quality water available at the lowest practicable cost to the consumer the driving management principal of the water system. Considering how long the study and negotiations will take, it is likely that CalAm will still be responsible to meet the 2021 deadline. Of course, CalAm has a history of not meeting deadlines, so we really don’t know.