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Desalination project wins approval despite equity concerns

In a decision that sheds a harsh light on the state’s commitment to environmental justice amid growing drought anxiety, the California Coastal Commission granted conditional approval to a controversial Monterey Bay desalination project. that even the staff of the commission said would unfairly burden a historically underserved population community.

“It’s a really, really tough decision,” Commission Chair Donne Brownsey told a spirited 1 p.m. hearing on Thursday. “Like most marshals here, I struggled with that. But I’ve read it all…talked to everyone…and I feel like this is the right place to land.

California American Water, an investor-owned utility, has proposed to build a complex worth more than $330 million desalination project on a former sand mining site in Marina, a small town where a third of the community is low-income and many speak little English. The plant would convert up to 6.4 million gallons of seawater into potable water per day which would then be piped to nearby towns and businesses.

The proposal drew testimony from more than 350 speakers and was seen by many as the first major test of the commission’s new power to consider potential harm to underserved communities in addition to environmental impacts. In a 157-page report, commission staff said the proposal presented “the most significant environmental justice concerns the Commission has considered since adopting an environmental justice policy in 2019.”

The commission delivered its decision to a Salinas chamber filled with lawyers, local water officials, task forces, tribal leaders and residents from across the region. Many noted the presence of Wade Crowfoot, Governor Gavin Newsom, the top natural resources official, who spent the entire day in the audience and delivered a keynote address emphasizing the need to diversify California’s water supply.

In the middle of it Amid repeated calls from the Newsom administration to accelerate desalination, commissioners reviewed water demand projections, impacts on local groundwater and other water supply issues. The heart of the debate, however, centered on whether it was acceptable to continue to burden some communities but not others with the burden of industrialization.

Marina, with a population of over 22,000, is already bearing the brunt of a regional landfill and sewage treatment plant, as well as a sand mine that has dredged the coast for over a century. Many speakers also questioned the economics of the proposal, decrying reports that treated seawater from Cal Am would cost nearly $8,000 per acre-foot – an outrageously high price that could weigh on taxpayers. of the Monterey Peninsula.

The commissioners, who voted 8-2, acknowledged those concerns and sought to remedy the situation by demanding a tough set of conditions – including guaranteed protection for low-income taxpayers, intense monitoring of any potential damage to the waters underground and extensive restoration of valuable dune habitat. They also ordered Cal Am to give Marina $3 million and a full-time employee for 10 years to develop more public amenities for the community.

Marina residents, however, said it felt like a slap in the face.

“Essentially they’re saying environmental justice can be negotiated for $3 million,” said Kathy Yaeko Biala, who spent many late hours defending her community. “It becomes monetary, not a principle to be respected.”

Caryl Hart, one of two commissioners to vote against the bill, echoed that sentiment and said Thursday’s vote was a failure of the values ​​upheld by the commission.

“You don’t buy environmental justice concerns,” she said. “I just don’t understand why we’re going this way… it’s a violation of our environmental justice policy, in my opinion.

In a crowded meeting hall in Salinas, hundreds of people voiced their support and opposition to a controversial desalination project proposed by California American Water.

(Rosanna Xia/Los Angeles Times)

Water politics are rarely easy, but along Monterey Bay it is particularly strained: the region, isolated from state and federal aqueducts, has limited water options. A few communities like Marina tap their own groundwater, but most depend on Cal Am, which pumped the Carmel River for decades.

But the river, where 10,000 rainbow trout once spawned, has suffered from the region’s water needs. Cal Am was pumping more than three times its legal limit, and in 1995 the State Water Resources Control Board ordered an end to the overdraft — a deadline that was extended to December 2021.

A number of alternative supply projects have been proposed over the years, including a new dam and a desalination plant at Moss Landing Power Station. Voters rejected the dam’s funding plan and environmentalists balked at all the marine life that could be harmed by sucking water straight from the ocean.

So Cal Am tried again with the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project: a smaller desalination plant that would use a slant-well technique that doesn’t draw water from the open sea. They chose a new site – a sand mine in Marina which recently closed.

This scaled-down project relies on a new public reclaimed water project to fill the demand gap. Over the past two years, in the face of growing controversy, the company has also agreed to build the project in phases and reduce the overall footprint even further – from six inclined shafts to four.

“We used the best scientific and technical knowledge available. We carefully reviewed everything and addressed all the objections we heard – and we took what we heard and made changes to the project to make it better,” said Kevin Tilden, president of the company.

Image of the Marina Sand Mine prior to its closure in 2020.

A desalination project would be located on the coast of Marina, where a sand mine had operated.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Cal Am also offered to sell some of the desalinated water to Marina (which the community said added insult to injury), and it struck a deal to provide water at a rate reduced to Castroville, a small community of farm workers on the verge of collapse.

“The average household income here is $35,000, and I don’t know if that matters that there are usually two families stuck in one house,” said Eric Tynan, general manager of the Community Services District of Castroville, who noted, with clear panic in his voice, that his community had just lost its best well to seawater intrusion.

Critics say Castroville was played – a false pitting of one underserved community against another. That’s what happens when a big water company controls so many pieces of the chessboard, said Melodie Chrislock, who is leading a public effort to buy out Cal Am to end the exorbitant cost some water.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest the average taxpayer will pay at least $564 more per year to fund the desalination project. But the final cost — and whether the water is even needed — remains unknown, pending a final decision from the California Public Utilities Commission next year.

“There’s something going on politically here that smells really bad,” said Chrislock, a longtime Carmel resident, who said it was premature for the coastal commission to approve the project before the CPUC’s decision.

Chrislock, along with many others on Thursday, highlighted the new recycled water project, Pure Water Monterey, as a fairer and more environmentally friendly way to meet the region’s water needs for at least the next three decades. . Extending this other project – a joint effort of local public agencies – would also be much cheaper.

Cal Am declined to provide updated estimates, but public water officials have calculated desalinated water could cost at least $7,900 per acre-foot, or per 325,851 gallons. (Compare that to the $1,700 per acre-foot cost of the public Doheny desalination project, which the Coast Commission approved last month. Even the controversial Poseidon Water proposal in Huntington Beach, which the commission rejected at the unanimity in May, would have cost less than half, at $3,000 per acre-foot.)

Recent filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also show that Cal Am has already incurred $206 million in total project costs.

State Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), who represents all of the communities involved and opposes the project, noted that “Cal Am, as a utility company owned by investors, owes its allegiances to its investors: it has to grow, it has to make money, it has to be profitable.

Some commissioners, concerned about these unanswered cost questions, clarified that the project could not proceed without final clearance from the CPUC that the water was indeed needed.

Returning to Marina late Thursday, locals were visibly exhausted from trying to keep up with Cal Am’s more sophisticated lobbying.

“I’m in pain,” said Bruce Delgado, longtime mayor of Marina, whose voice cracked with emotion as he spoke of all the families, teachers and students who spent another day pleading their case with the powers in place.

Delgado said the city is considering its next options. Marina has previously sued Cal Am, and local leaders recently mooted the idea of ​​having their own water supply system for Castroville. Their two struggling communities should never have been pitted against each other, he said.

For Monica Tran Kim, who juggles four jobs to make ends meet, getting to the meeting this week meant sacrificing more than 12 hours of work. But she felt an immense duty to speak on behalf of the city’s large refugee community.

Kim, whose parents fled Vietnam and forged a new life fishing off Marina, said many were reluctant to speak out against a company as politically powerful as Cal Am. She often thinks of the working families who have historically been driven out from Pacific Grove and other more affluent towns nearby.

“It was land first, now water,” she said. “It’s a historic rehearsal of people in power taking what’s valuable from a community they don’t see as deserving – from a vulnerable community.”

California Daily Newspapers

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