" - Guest commentary by RON WEITZMAN

 

May 30, 2015  
Monterey Herald, Monterey, California

Guest Commentary

 

Cal Am aggression rankles hesitant alliance

By Ron Weitzman

To assure local control over water rates and availability, the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula (WRAMP) seeks public ownership of the new water supply needed for the Monterey Peninsula. That means privately-owned Cal Am is our target and, as such, it certainly has been an elusive prey.

First, it colludes with Monterey County to circumvent the county ordinance prohibiting private desal ownership while the county denies that privilege to local entrepreneurs who plan to sell their desal projects to a public agency.

Second, it colludes with the county to destroy the Regional Desal Project because its owner was a public agency, Marina Coast, and substitute for that project the currently proposed company-owned Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project.

Third, because it does not have Marina Coast's water rights in the Salinas Valley, the company pursues the use of never-before-used slant wells to draw water from under the sea floor to avoid tapping valley groundwater, whose exportation from the valley is prohibited by state law.

Fourth, because initial results show the test slant well is in fact tapping valley groundwater, there being so large a freshwater component in the draw as to require halting the test, the company now claims that component will diminish to insignificance over time with no solid evidence to substantiate the claim.

Fifth, the company and its supporters are so myopic they fail to see that other water-exporting desal plants will be permitted to withdraw valley groundwater if Cal Am's plant is permitted to do it, opening a floodgate eventually catastrophic to valley agriculture.

Sixth, to keep most local ratepayers at bay with affordable bills, the company has instituted a steeply-tiered rate structure so that the large majority of ratepayers who use low-to-moderate amounts of water are subsidized by the others, whose bills have skyrocketed to accommodate the company's ever-rising costs.

Seventh, because the company is at least four years behind schedule to meet the state's deadline for overpumping the Carmel River, it has colluded with local mayors to switch the state's penalty for failure to meet the deadline from a daily company fine of $27,000 to a ratepayer cutback of about a tenth of total water supply a year for each year from now that the company fails to meet a project milestone.

All these elusive and evasive moves have so far proved successful, but recently the company has pressed so hard that its supportive and protective alliance of business, agriculture and residents may be on the brink of falling apart.

Residents first: A state appeals court ruling has found tiers to be illegal for a public agency under Proposition 218. Since the Public Utilities Commission is a public agency that sets local water rates, that ruling will likely turn out to apply here as well. In that case, monthly water bills for residential customers using the local household average amount of water (20 percent of an acre-foot per year) will rise to an eye-popper of just under $100, without desal.

Second, growers: They recently became upset with Cal Am when it decided to continue its test-well operation after finding the well was drawing water from the Salinas Valley groundwater basin despite an earlier agreement requiring the company to cease the operation if that occurred. Grower trust in the company is waning.

Third, the local business community: It has become consternated by the proposal of the company, supported by the mayors' water authority, to relax the state's deadline by incrementally cutting back the local water supply instead of fining Cal Am. Water cutbacks hurt business.

Maybe, life here will become so palpably intolerable for Cal Am that, in its own self-interest, it will decide to leave the area.

Ron Weitzman is president of the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula.

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