California Coastal Commission to weigh Monterey desal project this week

Members of the California Coastal Commission this week will weigh a proposed desalination project in Monterey County – a region that has experienced water supply challenges in recent years.

Commissioners are set to consider a proposal Thursday from California-American Water Company, known as Cal-Am, to construct and operate desalination components as part of its Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project. The proposed project, developed over the past decade, would produce 4.8 million gallons of water per day in phase one and could grow to 6.4 million gallons per day if needed.

Staff is recommending commissioners approve the Monterey project with special conditions, which include requirements for additional permits, biological monitoring during construction and the creation of a “spill prevention and response plan.”

The project is going before the commission just over a month after the panel approved a proposed desalination project in Orange County, which followed the commission’s denial of a high-profile proposal for a $1.4 billion desalination project in Huntington Beach in May. This is not the first time the commission will hear Cal-Am’s proposal – commissioners first heard the proposal in 2019 and took no action, and staff was expected to hear the project again in September 2020, but Cal-Am withdrew their application.

Desalination – the process where salt is removed from ocean water to make it drinkable – has raised concerns from environmental groups and coastal commission staff in the past regarding the potential impact on marine life. Cal-Am has proposed using slant wells to obtain water, which minimizes the possible intake of marine life.

Still, the project remains controversial among local environmental groups in Monterey County, who have opposed the project for years. The proposed project has spawned at least 10 lawsuits and “involves the most significant environmental justice concerns” considered by the commission since adopting an Environmental Justice Policy in 2019, according to the commission’s staff report. Environmental justice is the idea that the costs of development are paid disproportionately by minority communities.

Citizens for Just Water, a group of Marina residents, is urging local residents to write to the Coastal Commission and request their denial of the project.

“Cal-Am is enacting the most clear and most egregious form of environmental injustice that will likely come before any body,” Citizens for Just Water said in a statement to The Center Square. “A for-profit private water corporation under American Water seeks to invade a neighboring disadvantaged community of color that has its own public water district.”

The group added that Thursday’s hearing “will determine whether principle of environmental justice is a ‘real thing’ or can be easily ‘bargained’ away.”

On the other hand, supporters of the project say it is necessary to bolster the state’s water supply after years of challenges. Glenn Farrel, the executive director of California Desal, told The Center Square that Monterey County had done its “due diligence” on water conservation and water use efficiency, but there remains a lack of reliable water supply.

“Desalination on the coast, and even inland where it makes sense, has got to be a key part of the state’s portfolio going forward to address water resilience and drought resilience and insulate our communities from the damage associated with prolonged and ongoing drought conditions,” Farrel said.

In a report on the project, commission staff acknowledged that “it is reasonable to project that water from Cal-Am’s project will be needed as part of the area’s water portfolio within the next 20 years” as the region’s water supply faces the impacts of the state’s prolonged drought. The three year period ending in August 2022 was “the driest in all of California history,” the report states, and the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the entire state is facing some level of drought.

Staff noted, however, that the proposed project is expected to increase rates by up to $50 per month, “which would substantially raise water rates for low-income ratepayers throughout the service area, who worry that the cost of water could eventually push them out of their moderately priced coastal communities.” In response to cost concerns, Cal-Am told the commission it is prepared to develop proposals that will offset the cost of the project to low-income ratepayers.

Evan Jacobs, president of the California Association, told The Center Square in a statement that this proposal represents the “right project, right technology and right time.”

“We will comply with the conditions in the staff report,” Jacobs told The Center Square in an email. “It’s time to move forward with the desal project to protect the Carmel River and create a reliable drought-proof water supply for the region.”

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