August 18, 2012
Monterey Herald
Monterey, California

Ways Peninsula can save on cost of water

Guest commentary

Taking the wrong course on water could cost Monterey Peninsula ratepayers a half billion dollars. If that is of concern to you, then what follows ought to interest you.

It all depends on who owns the water-supply project we need to avoid water rationing that could begin less than five years from now. Will it be Pacific Grove at its Moss Landing site? Or will it be Cal Am, whose project centers on Seaside's aquifer?

An aquifer is not a glass bowl or a dam. Every aquifer is permeable. Water tables fall unless recharged by rain. Yet Monterey Peninsula Water Management District manager David Stoldt claimed the Seaside aquifer was an exception at the recent workshop conducted by the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco. He had to take that counter-scientific and counter-commonsense position because a leaking aquifer could sink the Cal Am water-supply proposal, including the district's aquifer storage and recovery and treated wastewater components, two of the legs of the so-called three-legged stool.

All three legs, a costly Cal Am desalination plant being the third, rely on the assumption that water injected into the Seaside aquifer does not seep out. It does, and the only scientific question is at what rate.

According to data provided by hydrologist Timothy J. Durbin, the rate could be anywhere from 4,256 to 11,900 acre-feet per year, depending on the aquifer's boundaries. At the workshop, my group, WaterPlus, demanded Cal Am's proposal take such seepage into account before going forward at ratepayer expense. Whatever the seepage rate, it will require a new environmental impact report for the project, rather than merely a supplemental one proposed by Cal Am.

Here is the problem. Injection of 3,500 acre-feet of treated wastewater into the Seaside aquifer, one of the three legs, is planned to occur during winter, when farmers least need water. It is to be withdrawn in summer, when the Peninsula most needs water.

By summer, some of the injected water will have seeped out of the aquifer. Suppose that amount is 600 acre-feet. That would mean the aquifer would lose 600 acre-feet if Cal Am withdrew 3,500 acre-feet to meet Peninsula water needs. Continuation of the process would deplete the aquifer's supply of potentially potable water and increase the likelihood of saltwater intrusion. The project would never pass environmental muster. Cal Am could not use treated wastewater injection to justify its already-questionable eligibility for low-cost state revolving-fund financing under the federal Clean Water Act.

Nor could the water management district claim Carmel River water stored in the Seaside aquifer would be there for use years later.

This was one of the points made at the San Francisco workshop that motivated the administrative law judge to put its schedule on hold and send Cal Am back to the drawing board.

Another point, made by WaterPlus and others, concerns the county ordinance prohibiting a private company like Cal Am from owning a desalination plant in the county. Cal Am claims the ordinance doesn't apply because the PUC can make a declaration of convenience and necessity for its project. At the workshop, WaterPlus pointed out the ordinance was a public health and safety provision, and that by state law, the county has the right and obligation to protect the health and safety of residents.

The issue comes into focus because of the recent San Clemente Dam debacle. For many years, Cal Am so mismanaged the dam that it has become a danger to public safety, requiring its removal. Adding insult to injury, the state has allowed Cal Am to make a profit from the dam's removal and required ratepayers to pay most of the bill. How can we possibly entrust Cal Am with building and operating a desalination plant that our lives and livelihood will depend on? Cal Am is not likely to prevail on this issue, especially because the proposed Pacific Grove project makes the Cal Am project unnecessary.

In response to the workshop invitation to offer contingency plans, WaterPlus proposed to add the Pacific Grove project as a fourth leg to stabilize the three-legged stool. Cal Am's proposal includes provision for obtaining water from the Sand City desalination plant and, if available on time and at low enough cost, from treated wastewater injected into the Seaside aquifer. WaterPlus recommended simply that Cal Am add Pacific Grove's desalinated water to this water-supply potential, using the same timing and cost criteria that govern the use of treated wastewater.

If the Pacific Grove project meets these criteria, as WaterPlus is confident it will, any desalination plant proposed by Cal Am will not be necessary.


Ron Weitzman is president of WaterPlus. He lives in Carmel.

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