January 22, 2012
Monterey Herald
Monterey, California

Making water go public

By RON WEITZMAN
Guest commentary

Judge Lydia Villarreal's order of a new environmental impact report for the regional desalination project and Cal Am's withdrawal from it give our community some breathing time as we go racing across the desert like a mule train without a driver in search of a new water source, with the state Water Resources Control Board in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the regional project has run out of breath with buzzards already circling above the not-quite-dead carcass. The Peninsula cities are in the process of forming a joint powers agency (JPA) to seize the reins while environmentalists are trying to breathe new life into the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to enable it to rein in any new development threatened by alternative projects.

Offering to help the district promote its conservation ethic is the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, which sees no sense in wasting wastewater.

Peering into this dust-up, we can see public officials fiercely fighting each other and sometimes even themselves.

The first city to act, Carmel, voted to approve the JPA plan but felt that it did not go far enough, partly because it failed to include the water management district and the water pollution control agency, which the plan explicitly excluded as anti-development forces, and partly because it lacked specification and prioritization of Cal Am's 11 alternatives to the regional project, never mind that 10 of them are illegal because the county requires public agencies to develop water-supply projects. Never mind that all 11 exclude the Moss Landing project, the most-advanced contender.

Monterey has decided not to join the JPA as currently proposed, and so apparently a number of issues must be resolved before the plan can materialize.

Behind all this scurrying and scuffling is Order 95-10, the cease-and-desist order threatening to cut our local water usage in half if we fail to develop a new, drought-resistant water supply.

"Drought resistant" is fast becoming the operative adjective here because our current weather suggests that we may be entering another dry spell that will nullify any water-supply alternatives involving the winter storage of Carmel River water. That means we must have a desalination plant that has sufficient capacity to provide all the water needed to meet the cease-and-desist order. Most importantly, Judge Villarreal's decision and Cal Am's withdrawal give us time now to look back at Order 95-10 to make sure that we are actually being chased by a fire-breathing monster and not just a desert chimera. It effectively orders Cal Am to come up with a new water supply, but Monterey County ordinance forbids Cal Am from doing so alone. Rather than a cease-and-desist order against Cal Am, the state Water Resources Control Board should have explicitly ordered a public agency, particularly the water management district, to develop a new, drought-resistant water supply.

Why? Because both the state authorizes it and the county permits it. If the regional project fails completely, a good first order of business for the cities' new JPA is to enjoin the state water board to take that action.

Ron Weitzman, who lives in Carmel, is president of WaterPlus, a group that advocates a public takeover of Cal Am.

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