" - Guest commentary by RON WEITZMAN

 

April 18, 2015  
Monterey Herald, Monterey, California

Guest Commentary

 

Reasons for local coddling of Cal Am unclear

By Ron Weitzman

Maybe this will be the last straw, but likely not. After apparently finding at least 35 percent fresh water in its initial test-well sample, as many slant-well opponents had predicted, Cal Am floated a proposal to sell back the excess water to growers who possess the rights to it. That proposal has angered growers, who now just want Cal Am to take its straw and go away.

Why? Because Cal Am had entered into an agreement with them requiring it to abandon its slant-well plans if the test well turned up so much fresh water that it would trigger the state's Agency Act, which forbids the exportation of groundwater from the Salinas Valley.

Despite this quandary, Cal Am need not worry. The company has friends in high places, extending from the Public Utilities Commission and the Coastal Commission to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and the local mayors' water authority. Cal Am makes a mistake, each of these bodies gives it a pass, and water ratepayers get stuck with the bill, in this case $5 million and rising. Two further examples will prove enlightening.

The first is the collusion of Cal Am with Monterey County to exempt the company exclusively from the county's desalination ordinance prohibiting a private company from owning and operating a desalination plant here. This collusion began as early as 2004, when Cal Am proposed the Coastal Water Project to be owned and operated by it. When Stephen Collins came along with the Regional Desalination Project transferring ownership and operation to Marina Coast in compliance with the county's ordinance, Cal Am and the county again colluded, this time to prosecute Collins for not working pro bono on the project while serving on a county advisory board. Why? To void the contracts underlying the Marina Coast project so that Cal Am could re-establish its highly profitable position as owner and operator, this time of a new Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, the one based on slant wells. Cost to ratepayers for these course corrections: $32 million in billing surcharges so far, with millions more to come.

The second is the collusion of Cal Am with the mayors' authority to try to persuade the state water board to alter its cease-and-desist-order penalty from fining Cal Am to rationing ratepayers for the company's failure to cut back its pumping from the Carmel River. If successful, this attempt could save the company from a fine of $27,000 a day beginning at the end of next year and continuing for at least four years after that.

As a profit-driven company, Cal Am has every reason to pursue such efforts in its behalf. The reason for the coddling of the company by state agencies is less clear, but a fair question for us ratepayers on the Monterey Peninsula is why our county supervisors and local mayors support Cal Am, demonstrably at the expense of their ratepayer constituents.

An obvious place to look for an answer is the county tug-of-war between environmentalists and developers, and the arena of particular concern is the former Fort Ord, where local opportunities for development are greatest. Water scarcity can control development, and so control of water availability is paramount. Right now, Marina Coast has that control on Fort Ord land, and, in their support of Cal Am, county and local government officials, with business community backing, appear to be attempting to wrest that control away because the Marina Coast board is vulnerable to control by environmentalists. This, of course, is pure speculation. Naysayers have the challenge to come up with a better explanation.

Meanwhile, for Cal Am, profit remains the name of the game played on a game board strewn with broken rules sanctioned by government at the expense of ratepayers.

Ron Weitzman is president of Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula (formerly WaterPlus)

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