Friday, February 13, 2015

The myth of better, faster, cheaper water.

For the past several years readers of the Monterey Herald have been subjected to a barrage of guest commentaries relating to our local water crisis. Some have come from the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, affectionately known as “the water board” while others have been written by representatives from Cal-Am, the water company. These have typically been fluff pieces, saying little more than “we're making progress” except they use 600 words instead of three.

But the vast majority of these commentaries have originated with a small cluster of citizens groups telling us the water board and/or Cal-Am are doing everything wrong. The desalination plant Cal-Am is planning to build is a rip-off, they say, frequently adding the opinion that only a public water company will ever give us a good deal. They trot out a mind-numbing array of facts and figures, which most of us average citizens struggle to decipher, to show that a better, faster, cheaper project can be had if we just follow their guidance.

Maybe they're right, but frankly I don't really care. If they can do it better than Cal-Am then great, I'm all for it. But the fact is that the promise of a better, faster, cheaper project has been haunting us for over twenty years, and in my estimation is the main reason why nothing has been done.

The water board was formed by the state legislature in 1978 following a terrible drought that rationed Peninsula residents to 50 gallons of water per person per day for an extended period of time. The purpose of the water board was to develop and build a new water supply project so we wouldn't ever have to go through that again. Three significant droughts later we still don't have a solution, and it is not Cal-Am's nor the water board's fault. It is ours.

In 1993 and 1995 Peninsula voters were asked by the water board to approve a modest sized desalination plant in Sand City and a new Los Padres dam on the Carmel River. This combination would have provided us with ample storage to get both humans and fish through dry periods and a drought-proof supplement to our sporadic rainfall.

I voted for both projects, but watched in dismay as my fellow citizens rejected the desal plant in '93. The prevailing arguments were that desalinated water was more expensive than conventional rainfall storage, desal plants consume a lot of energy, and the salty discharge could harm ocean life. And besides, went the argument, a new dam is just around the corner which will make the desal plant unnecessary. Two years later these same voters turned down the new dam on the grounds that it was too expensive, environmentally damaging, and growth inducing. The anti-dam campaign led voters to believe that a better, faster, cheaper project would soon come along. It never did.

Denied the ability to pick the low hanging fruit, the water board had few options left. It basically went adrift for many years, and became the whipping boy when the state ordered major cutbacks in pumping Carmel Valley groundwater. The water board, according to popular opinion, was the problem, not the solution. The agency had such a poor reputation that Peninsula voters passed an advisory measure asking the legislature to disband the water board. The legislature did not.

Meanwhile, unable to find adequate water within the Cal-Am service area, officials began looking farther afield, entering into insanely complex political and legal wranglings with neighboring communities and their water agencies. One ridiculously convoluted plan involving four separate agencies, each one responsible for owning and operating different components of a single desal plant, went down in well-publicized and well-deserved flames.

After that debacle, Cal-Am understandably began to distance itself from public bureaucracies and set out on its own to build a desal plant near Marina. Somehow this led the better, faster, cheaper crowd to conclude that Cal-Am was the new enemy. No longer was the water board to blame for our lack of water, and certainly not Peninsula voters who could have solved our problems long ago. Cal-Am, we are now being told, not only caused our water shortage, their attempt to build a desal plant to end it is all wrong because better desal plants can be built faster and cheaper than Cal-Am can. They are so convinced that last year they fully expected Peninsula voters to ask the old enemy, the water board, to forcibly take over the private utility company. Somehow they imagined that the board had magically transformed its reputation from incompetent bureaucrats to angelic saviors overnight. When voters sensibly failed to buy that argument the better, faster, cheaper crowed naturally blamed Cal-Am for duping voters with a well-funded campaign. They still don't accept that their own arguments were as weak as cheap tea.

I think the better, faster, cheaper plan is a myth. If it was real, it would have been done by now. In fact, the desal plant in Sand City and the new Los Padres dam would have been much better, definitely faster, and probably cheaper than anything that has been proposed since. Peninsula voters could have saved everyone a lot of grief if they hadn't listened to the better, faster, cheaper crowd two decades ago. If Peninsula residents continue to be seduced by the false promise of a better, faster, cheaper water project, we'll have no excuses to blame anyone but ourselves when the state clamps down and enforces the restrictions on pumping Carmel Valley groundwater late next year.