By Rachel Becker, CalMatters
The California Coastal Commission tonight approved another desalination plant, despite citing its high costs, risks to Monterey Bay’s environment and “the most significant environmental justice issues” the commission has faced in recent years.
The commission’s divided, 8-to-2 vote came after 13 hours of debate at a Salinas public hearing packed with several hundred people, plus more crammed into overflow space. Many of the 375 who signed up to speak opposed the project — some in tears.
Much of the debate focused on the fairness of locating a for-profit company’s facility in the Monterey County city of Marina — which does not need the water and is home to designated disadvantaged neighborhoods. The expensive supply will flow to other communities, including the whiter, wealthy enclaves of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach.
“It’s our city, our water, our beaches, our wildlife — so that Cal-Am can send the water to another wealthier community who don’t even want it,” Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado told commissioners, his voice breaking.
California American Water, the nation’s largest publicly traded water and wastewater company, plans to build the plant to pump ocean water, desalinate it and provide drinking water to 100,000 people on the Monterey Peninsula. The largely Latino, agricultural community of Castroville would also receive the water at a discount.
Today, nine years after the project was first proposed, commissioners approved the plant along with a long list of conditions aimed at limiting the harm to dunes and wetlands, groundwater stores and local communities. The company must still obtain an array of local, state and federal permits, and resolve a court battle over groundwater rights before construction could begin.
Coastal Commission staff warned that the plant would require overriding parts of the state’s Coastal Act, and would have “substantial impacts” to sensitive habitat areas for threatened and endangered species such as the Western snowy plover, which nests in dunes there.
The approval is a pivot from the staff’s 2020 recommendation to reject the company’s proposal to build a larger plant. Since then, California has faced its driest three-year stretch on record, and a fourth drought year is looming, making the need for new drinking water supplies more urgent.
The decision pits environmental justice concerns and ecological impacts against the precarious water supply of the Monterey Peninsula, which does not receive imported water and relies instead on over-pumped groundwater, the overtaxed Carmel River and highly-treated wastewater. Parts of the peninsula have been under a moratorium for new water connections for longer than a decade.
“There’s just too much uncertainty regarding the future of the water supply in this region,” Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth said at the hearing. “History will judge us harshly if we do not take a precautionary approach on water supplies in this community.”
But Commissioner Linda Escalante, one of the two voices of dissent, said she could not support the project because of the “overwhelming uncertainty of need, cost and feasibility.”
The plant would produce about 4.8 million gallons of water per day when it begins operating, with the possibility of increasing production later. California American Water hopes to have it operating by the end of 2027. The water company is seeking to bolster local supplies after state regulators ordered it to stop its decades-old practice of unlawfully diverting more than its share from the Carmel River.
Supporters of the desalination project include Gov. Gavin Newsom, state water agencies and local businesses, with hotels and inns in the region writing letters of support, and some saying it would ease housing shortages in the region.
“The Monterey Peninsula has been in dire need of additional drought-proof, reliable water supplies for over 25 years. There’s no time left to wait,” wrote Amy Herzog, executive director of Visit Carmel, in a letter to the commission.
Newsom “supports the staff recommendation and appreciates their work to ensure the project protects the coastal environment and addresses environmental justice issues,” Newsom Communications Director Erin Mellon told CalMatters.
But Coastal Commission staff acknowledged that even if the company meets the conditions, the environmental justice impacts remain in Marina and elsewhere.
“The simple fact the project is sited within a community that doesn’t want it and won’t benefit from it means that these impacts cannot be fully eliminated,” Kate Huckelbridge, a senior deputy director, told the commissioners.
Customers could face bill hikes of $50 per month, about a 50% increase over the average residential bill, California American Water estimates.
“If Cal Am is allowed to build their desal plant, and my water bill increases by 50%, I will have to choose between eating and buying water,” one commenter, Tammy Jennings, told commissioners, adding that even with the company’s low-income assistance program, the bill runs more than $40 a month. “No one should be allowed to make a profit on something we all need to live.”
California American Water proposed increasing its low-income discounts to 50% and expanding eligibility for its assistance program. But the commissioners at the last minute tonight added provisions ordering the company to improve plans for assisting low-income ratepayers and capping rate hikes at $10 a month for eligible customers.
Just before 10 p.m., after 13 hours, in an attempt to soften the blow, the commissioners also asked the company to pay $3 million to the city of Marina and fund a full-time employee to oversee a public access and amenities plan.
Residents and officials from Marina — where 62% of residents are people of color and the average annual income is under $33,000 — said the facility would add to their environmental burdens, which already include a Superfund site and landfill.
They worry it would harm their shoreline and imperil precious groundwater supplies. Others questioned whether there is even a need for the water on the peninsula, given its high cost and efforts to expand local recycled water production.
Delgado showed commissioners a picture of a rusted pipeline rising above sand dunes. “Would you want this on the beach that you go to? Is this what the Coastal Commission envisions?”
The decision was closely watched as the state weighs how desalination will fit into its parched future. Currently four desalination plants provide drinking water in California.
The Coastal Commission staff in its support of the project cited “the increased pressure from the historic drought for new sources of water in a region already struggling with longstanding, critical water shortages.” Though recycled water provides a “feasible and less environmentally damaging alternative” in the near term, “staff concludes that the Project is needed in the longer term.”
In May, the commissioners unanimously rejected another controversial plant proposed by developer Poseidon Water in Huntington Beach, citing environmental harms, high costs and lack of local demand. But a smaller, less-expensive plant proposed by a public water agency in Dana Point sailed through the approval process in October.
The Monterey County plant brings the battle north. Its size more closely resembles the Dana Point plant and it, too, would suck water from beneath the sea floor, adding a buffer between the intakes and sea life.
But instead of a public agency, a massive water utility would construct and operate the Monterey Bay plant. And it would produce the “most costly water of any of the desalination projects the Commission has considered recently,” staff wrote in their assessment.
“The question I pose to the Commission today is how they want to be remembered,” California State University Monterey Bay graduate student Liz Smith said at the hearing. “You have a chance to stand against environmental injustice to stand beside the community and environment you claim to support and to be on the right side of history.”
Endangered species, dunes and groundwater at risk
Home to charismatic sea otters and other marine creatures, Monterey Bay is highly prized and protected for its kelp forests and deep underwater canyons. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary reaches from north of the Golden Gate Bridge to Cambria, spanning a 4,601 square nautical mile stretch about the size of Connecticut.
Constructing the well pads, an access road and part of the pipeline — plus ongoing maintenance — would disturb coastal dune habitat that still supports two dozen sensitive species despite a century of sand mining, commission staff reported.
Nearby wetlands and vernal ponds, too, could see the groundwater beneath them drawn down by as much as four feet, according to an earlier independent review from the Coastal Commission. What’s unclear is how this would affect the wetlands: if they’re connected to the groundwater, “this amount of drawdown could cause adverse effects to up to several dozen acres of these important habitat areas,” the review says.
The commission tasked the company with keeping a close watch on how the wetlands respond to pumping, and developing a plan if they find any harm. Commissioners also responded to residents’ complaints by adding last-minute requirements for the company to prioritize purchasing other dune habitat in an effort to offset ecological harm.
It’s not enough, Delgado said.
“The first thing that would happen is that those vernal pools and wetlands would dry up,” the mayor said. Only then would the monitoring “tell us what that cure is, somewhere down the road, someplace probably outside Marina.”
Supporters said a desalination plant could offset harm to the Carmel River, which California American Water has been illegally pumping from in excess of its water right for decades.
DJ Moore, an attorney representing California American Water, said the company has shrunk the footprint of permanently fenced area on the shore to 7,400 square feet. Staff said the company’s plans to use tunneling techniques for pipelines would also reduce harm to sensitive ecosystems.
Even more controversial is how the facility could affect local groundwater supplies, which Marina relies on for drinking water.
The wells would stretch at least 1,000 feet seaward, from a former sand mining facility in Marina on the shore of Monterey Bay to suck in water from beneath the sea floor, and then pipe it to a new treatment facility adjacent to an existing wastewater plant. The leftover brine would be co-mingled with the wastewater and discharged about two miles offshore in the National Marine Sanctuary.
In addition to seawater, the wells will pull “some percentage of water from nearby aquifers,” said Tom Luster, the Coastal Commission’s senior environmental scientist. That groundwater must be returned to the basin in the form of discounted supplies for Castroville.
Marina officials and residents have raised concerns that the wells could degrade their own groundwater stores and cause saltwater to seep into the aquifer.
Previous reviews found “limited to negligible” effects on seawater intrusion and that the plant’s capture area “would likely not extend to near the City’s wells.” The Marina Coastal Water District, which contests that assessment, is embroiled in a court battle with the company over its rights to pump groundwater.
Coastal commission staff acknowledged the uncertainties and the severe consequences if desalination did harm local groundwater supplies.
“We took the precautionary approach of requiring a very robust groundwater monitoring plan … meant to be an early warning system,” Huckelbridge said.
Costs could “burden low-income ratepayers”
Costs of construction remain unknown because the company says it is waiting for the commission’s approval before bidding the construction and material costs. But the company’s previous estimate is around $330 million; the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District estimates more than $420 million.
The desalinated water could cost more than $6,000 per acre-foot. The estimated 50% increase in rates will “disproportionately burden low-income ratepayers in the service area and residents in the City of Marina,” according to commission staff.
Eric Tynan, general manager of the Castroville Community Services District, whose groundwater supplies are already tainted by seawater, supports the project and the discounted water supplies it would bring.
“Castroville really needs it. We’re the canary in the coal mine. And this has been a slow moving trainwreck coming at us,” Tynan said.
Others questioned the need for the pricey water, particularly given efforts by Pure Water Monterey to recycle more water.
“It’s more than enough water for thirty-plus years, so you don’t need a desal plant today,” David Stoldt, general manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which is tasked with managing the region’s ground and surface water supplies, told CalMatters.
“You don’t go to your most expensive, most environmentally harmful project first. You go there last.”