January 10, 2015  
Monterey Herald, Monterey, California

Guest Commentary

 

It's time to take the reins from Cal Am

By Ron Weitzman

Almost 20 years have passed since the state ordered Cal Am to cut back nearly two-thirds of the water it had been taking from the Carmel River. Yet, Cal Am is still taking that forbidden water and is even asking the state for at least two or three years more to ravage the river with impunity. Meanwhile, ratepayers have not escaped the penalty of Cal Am's failure. Our rates have skyrocketed while our usage has plummeted, and our prospects are even more dismal. Maybe a look back at our local water politics the past two decades will mobilize us to take local control of our water destiny.

In the same year, 20 years ago, we voted against a dam on the Carmel River as a solution to our water-supply problem, and shortly afterward we began seriously to consider other alternatives, the principal one being desalination. Cal Am had taken the reins on the dam and now sought to continue that lead role on desalination. In 2004 it proposed the Coastal Water Project to the Public Utilities Commission. The centerpiece of that project was a desalination plant at Moss Landing using the intake and outfall pipes of the energy plant there. The plan was for Cal Am to own and operate the plant despite a county ordinance forbidding a private company from doing so.

The 2009 environmental impact report for the project considered this and two other options in equal detail. One of these, originating in a parallel development by the Marina Coast Water District involving a combination of desalination and recycling, was a desalination plant in Marina to be owned and operated by Marina Coast, in compliance with the county ordinance. From 2007 to early 2009, a community group going by the acronym REPOG weighed these three options and decided in favor of the Marina Coast one, now called the Regional Desalination Project and certified as publicly convenient and necessary by the PUC in late 2010. Cal Am did not like this decision because it would cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in unrealized profits. Stephen Collins was largely responsible for this turn of events.

Because the county had not challenged Cal Am's ownership of the Coastal Water Project, the company felt emboldened to oppose the project it had morphed into and did so successfully in collusion with the county by having Collins charged with conflict of interest because he was paid to put the project together while being a director of a county water advisory board. As a result, the PUC withdrew its certification of the Regional Desalination Project and authorized Cal Am to propose a modification of the third option considered in the project's EIR, a desalination plant in Marina owned by Cal Am, possibly supplemented by a facility to recycle sewer water, and called the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project.

This project is already at least two years behind the state's deadline of December 2016 and is subject to a number of lawsuits that could kill it. In view of this history, it is clear why Cal Am opposed the regional project and supported the charges against Collins. What is unclear is why the county, from as early as 2004, has exempted Cal Am from its desalination ordinance and why it has spent many millions of dollars to prosecute Collins for not working pro bono.

Whatever the answers to these questions may be, ratepayers will continue to face steeply rising costs without relief from water shortages if they do not take matters into their own hands. The WaterPlus website www.waterplusmonterey.com contains a Herald commentary dated Dec. 9, 2013, detailing these costs, which are illustrated by graphs also posted there.

As soon as possible, a local city or district or joint powers agency must take the reins from Cal Am and put this sordid history behind us.

Ron Weitzman is president of WaterPlus

# # #

Waterplus Monterey Home       Return to Previous Page