Water 101

How to get that water we all want and need (aka Water 101)
By Chuck Della Sala

If you have lived on the Monterey Peninsula for any length of time, you know that a major concern is ensuring that we have sufficient water. Over the past few decades there is likely no local issue that has been more debated, politicized, voted on and, finally, as frustrating.

Early last year, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority (MPRWA) was created, consisting of the six Peninsula cities served by California American Water (Cal-Am): Carmel-by-the-Sea, Del Rey Oaks, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Sand City and Seaside. As the mayors of each of those cities comprise the board we’re also known as the Mayor’s Authority. Our mission is finding a solution to our water shortage created by the over-drafting of the Carmel River. Despite the good intentions of many and various ideas and concepts, that answer has remained elusive.

The MPRWA is working toward getting the necessary water in a timely fashion and a financially responsible manner. In the process we need to address such issues as why we have a water shortage and why it hasn’t been solved, why water is expensive and how much more it may cost in the future, what are the contingency plans and, finally, why what we are doing will succeed.

Simple, eh?  For starters, how did we get to this point in time? In 1978, the community formed the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD) to address our growing demand for water, which, by the mid 1990s, had resulted in over-drafting water from the Carmel River and the Seaside Aquifer. Despite increased water conservation efforts, the Peninsula was unable to reach a consensus or come up with something that successfully passed judicial review.

In 2006, a court decision mandated reductions in pumping from the Seaside Aquifer, and in 2009, the State issued a Cease and Desist Order imposing a deadline of Jan. 1, 2017, to greatly reduce water withdrawals from the Carmel River. With a Sword of Damocles hanging over us, the task was clear: We simply had to find an alternative water supply in the face of future severe rationing.

To facilitate the process, the State gave the California Public Utilities Commission responsibility to decide what water project(s) would be built. In 2012, Cal-Am, Marina Coast Water District, and Monterey County proposed a Regional Water Project. After that project failed Cal-Am proposed the current Monterey Peninsula Water Project.

Accordingly, in January 2012, the MPRWA was created. Our purpose is to study, plan, develop, finance, acquire, construct, maintain, repair, manage, operate, control and govern water projects. It’s like being a clearinghouse. One of our primary responsibilities is to address public concerns about the transparency of the project development process and about the projected increased cost of water.

Mastering the complexity of the water issue requires the MPRWA to travel a sometimes prickly path: navigate bureaucracies, sit through long meetings, balance competing interests, and understand engineering, hydrology, the law, and, of course, politics.

Cal-Am thinks it has a solution. It filed an application in April 2012 with the state Public Utilities Commission for the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, a project chosen after Cal-Am examined 11 potential alternatives to the original Regional Desalination Project. The current project is comprised of three primary elements referred to as a “Portfolio Approach.” They are desalination of seawater (desal), aquifer storage and recovery and groundwater replenishment or water recycling. A recent small addition to the Portfolio is the Pacific Grove recycling project that might reduce potable water demand by up to 3 percent.

The Mayor’s Authority supports the portfolio approach because even if one major aspect gets delayed the other two can continue to move forward. Cal-Am plans to build a saltwater desal plant with slant well intakes beneath the seabed on the coast north of Marina. Its size depends on the success of the recycled water project. Our belief is that desal has to be part of the mix because, without it, the rest of the portfolio would be unable to provide the needed water.

Aquifer storage and recovery is already used by Cal-Am and the MPWMD to take excess flows off the Carmel River in the winter to be stored in the Seaside Groundwater Basin for later use. This process will be expanded in the new project.

Groundwater replenishment is a project of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency and MPWMD that would thoroughly treat
wastewater before returning it to the Seaside Basin. Although there are two other desal alternative projects under consideration, time is of the essence. Accordingly, the Mayor’s Authority could support Cal-Am’s project as part of the portfolio approach if eight conditions are met. Our position policy statement outlines those conditions, which we will detail in a subsequent commentary in The Herald. We will also examine the effect of water rates, governance, decision-making and accountability, and the issues of permits, contingency plans and schedules.

In summary, over the last year and a half, we have all worked hard to address past failures and to find a viable water project. We have focused on consensus, transparency, adequate financing, and the importance of contingency planning. As a result, we strongly believe the community is the closest it has ever been to a achieving a water supply solution. And we know that you will be closely watching us.

/s/ Chuck Della Sala

Chuck Della Sala is the former mayor of Monterey and the former president of the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority.