Monday, September 11, 2017

A Watery War of Words

I recently caused a commotion in the Monterey Herald's letters section. On Tuesday August 29th the Herald printed a letter from Michael Baer of Monterey expressing his disappointment with the Mayors' Water Authority, specifically their apparent inability to bring Cal Am's ever increasing water bills under control. So far so good.

Then in regard to Cal Am's proposed desalination plant Baer complained that the Water Authority could “not even be bothered to seriously consider a plan B, just in case this project goes the way of all previous Cal Am new water supply projects: failure.” This is where I saw a problem. Two, actually, but I chose to respond to only one.

The one I ignored was the alleged lack of a “plan B.” The Water Authority designated the project called Deep Water Desal as a backup plan. They directed the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to help develop the project on a parallel track with Cal Am's project in case the latter fails to materialize. Baer may not have known this because it has not been given much attention in the local press beyond an initial announcement a couple years ago.

But I felt his other claim deserved some attention, as it has become popular in recent years to blame Cal Am for every previous project failure regardless of the cause or who was actually in charge. So I wrote the following letter which was published in the Herald on August 31st.
Cal Am not to blame for past failures
Michael Baer’s Aug. 29 letter made reference to the “failure” of “all previous Cal Am new water supply projects.” Let’s get the history straight. Cal Am has been the lead agency on only one water project, the current desalination plan. Earlier projects that failed were overseen by public agencies, not Cal Am.
The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District was in charge of two viable projects, a desalination plant in Sand City and a new Los Padres dam on the Carmel River. Taxpayer advocates and environmental groups convinced voters that these projects were too expensive, environmentally damaging, and growth inducing so they were killed at the ballot box.
More recently Marina Coast Water District was the lead agency for the Regional Desalination Project. It involved three public agencies (none of which represented Peninsula ratepayers), each designated to operate separate components of a single desalination plant which would sell water to Cal Am. A conflict of interest problem brought the whole thing crashing down.
Cal Am took the reins only after it became clear that the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project. And while this may not be saying much, Cal Am has made more progress than any public agency ever did.
— James B. Toy, Seaside
The very next day the Herald published a letter from Jan Shriner, a board member of the Marina Coast Water District. She didn't mention my letter specifically, but it was clear she didn't care for my choice of words as her first two sentences made clear:

“Cal Am is not a 'lead agency' of any project they propose. Cal Am can’t be the lead agency because they are the project proponent and a corporation.”

Evidently Shriner believes the term “agency” only applies to governmental organizations. Perhaps that is the case in her world of bureaucratic legalese, but my dictionary defines the word more broadly as “an organization, company, or bureau that provides a particular service,” so I believe I used the word correctly when I applied it to Cal Am. If I had said Cal Am was “in charge of” instead of the “lead agency on” only one project I might have avoided this little kerfuffle. Live and learn.

The remainder of her first paragraph said:

“Cal Am was a partner in the Regional Desalination Project (RDP) along with Marina Coast Water District and the Monterey County Water Resource Agency (MCWRA). Cal Am pulled out of the project (and sued MCWD) reportedly because a MCWRA director was accused of conflict of interest. The former MCWRA director pled no contest to the charges.”

This seems to confirm my original assessment, but her choice of words spins the story more in Marina Coast's favor. I suspect this was the motivation behind her letter as Marina Coast has been on the losing side of litigation with Cal Am in cases relating to both the failed RDP and Cal Am's current project.

But she did make one valid point. In my last paragraph I said “the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project.” Shriner corrected me by pointing to the completion of a small desalination plant in Sand City and a project called Aquifer Storage Recharge, which she said are both under the authority of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. A pending recycled water project called Pure Water Monterey is a joint effort involving three public agencies. Those projects had crossed my mind when I wrote my original letter, but even when combined they don't come close to fulfilling the need. However, they do help so for accuracy I should have said “the public agencies were unable to deliver a complete water supply solution.”

Moving along, on September 2nd and 3rd two more letters appeared. The first was from Chuck Cech of Monterey followed by Bill Hood, a part-time resident of Carmel. Both letters began with a brief reference to my letter indicating they didn't like it. Then they changed the subject by asking me a series of long-winded rhetorical questions about Cal Am's handling of ratepayers money which, of course, had nothing to do with the subject of my original letter except for inclusion of the water company's name.

Along with their similar formatting, both letters seemed to imply that my unwillingness to blame Cal Am for the failure of three projects not under the company's direct control somehow meant that I approve of everything Cal Am has ever done. The absurdity of that should be self-evident. And anyone who has read my previous writings about local water issues knows that at various times I have been both supportive and critical of Cal Am depending on the situation. I don't know Chuck Cech, and he may never have heard of me, so he can be excused for not knowing that. Bill Hood, on the other hand, has no excuses. He and I have had several online discussions on this topic, including private e-mails and public comments on the pages of the Monterey Bay Partisan. He knows where I stand and it's not where his very public letter placed me.

Since their two attack letters deviated so far from the subject of mine, I feel no obligation to answer their questions. But what the heck. I have nothing better to do right now, so I'll give them a go.

Cech began with a note of gratitude:

“Mr. Toy thank you for telling us Cal Am was not the lead agency on the three failed projects. However, Cal Am was a partner in each of these projects. They spent millions of dollars on each of these projects.”

It goes without saying that Cal Am was a partner since they would deliver any water produced by these projects. I assumed that was self-evident so I saw no need to deplete my 200 word allocation to explain that in my letter.

Then he launched his inquisition with this:

“Every one of these projects failed. Does Cal Am have difficulty working with others, when it comes to controlling water delivery and cost on the Monterey Peninsula?”

Well, let's see. I don't recall any reports of strife between Cal Am and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, and the company seems to have a pretty cozy relationship with the Peninsula Mayors Water Authority (some say they're too cozy). So no, they don't seem to have difficulty working with those agencies. As for Cal Am and Marina Coast, it's no secret that their relationship has been strained since the collapse of the RDP program. Is Cal Am to blame? Maybe, but Marina Coast doesn't have a particularly good reputation for cooperation. Two years ago then-Congressman Sam Farr suggested that Marina Coast should be disbanded because “They just haven’t conducted themselves in a very professional way. They’ve been fighting everybody else, and they’ve been sort of selfish and arrogant.” So there's that to consider.

Cech continued....and continued:

“Did Cal Am conduct the necessary due diligence investigation of all aspects of these projects before agreeing to join them? Since Cal Am was not the lead agency on any of these failed projects, why did they spend a total of $34 million on them, without turning one shovel of dirt? Why is Cal Am not responsible for their cost of these projects? Why are ratepayers now paying $34 million to Cal Am plus interest for these failed projects?”

I don't know the answers to any of those questions. Why don't you ask Cal Am? While you're at it, ask their lapdogs at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Hood had a similar line of questioning, but he opened by impugning my recollection of past events:

“Mr. Toy relies upon his version of history to claim that Cal Am is not at fault with respect to the present condition of water supply efforts.”

Stop right there, Bill. It looks like you're accusing me of making up alternative facts, Conway style. I take that very seriously because my reputation is at stake. If you are going to announce to the entire Peninsula that I have fabricated my own “version of history” contrary to actual history you need to explain your reasoning. If I have said anything that is untrue then by all means correct me (as Jan Shriner did). I'll take my lumps, learn from it, and strive to do better next time. But please don't suggest in public that I'm spreading misinformation then blow past the accusation by saying nothing more than...

“I do not agree with him, but even if I did, I would ask Mr. Toy these questions:”

And just like Cech you abruptly change the subject. I call this diversionary tactic “debate and switch.”

Now to answer your questions:

Yes, a fact-based opinion as to whether or not Cal Am is the villain in the Peninsula water scenario is necessary (and, frankly, is already on the record). But, why are you avoiding the “elephant in the room” by ignoring the more immediate and concerning issue that has resulted from the historical and ongoing Cal Am/CPUC/local political support process that has created the highest cost of water in the country?”

I'm not avoiding the subject. In my blog and in the comments section of the Monterey Bay Partisan I have used the word “unethical” to describe Cal Am's recent retroactive rate increase. But I didn't mention it in my letter because...

a.) Water rates were not the subject of my letter.

b.) The Herald's 200 word limit prevented me from going off on a tangent about water rates.

c.) The subject of Cal Am's high rates is discussed almost daily in the Herald's letters section and frequently in the Monterey Bay Partisan. At this point there's nothing I can say that hasn't been said a dozen times already.

Next question.

“Even if you were right and I was wrong, doesn't all of this tell you that something is amiss and has to be corrected?”

Yes.

“Do you really believe that the nation's highest water costs are the result from other factors at play not related to Cal Am, et al?”

The question is a little confusing. Do Peninsula voters, the Water Management District, and the state water board's cease and desist order qualify as “other factors” or do they get lumped in with “et al”? If they are other factors then my answer is yes. If they fall under et al then, no.

“Either way, are you satisfied with the current situation, and, if so, why?”

I'm not at all satisfied. In an earlier Mental Note I likened our situation to a “freakin' nuthouse.” As the years have passed there's been more and more bickering and less and less cooperation among everyone involved.

Making matters worse, Cal Am squandered a lot of goodwill by imposing their retroactive rate increase on top of rate increases to build their desal plant. And whoever was the genius that guaranteed Cal Am a certain amount of profit from every capital investment, including unproductive ones, should be run out of town in a westerly direction. But when it comes to building a water supply project Cal Am strikes me as the only adult in the room. The company is under a lot of pressure to succeed, and they're doing their darndest, yet a lot of people seem determined to block their every move. I tell you again, local water politics is a freakin' nuthouse!

The really frustrating part is that it was ridiculously easy to avoid the current situation, but we collectively chose not to. Had voters approved the local water district's plans for a dam and desal plant combo in the 1990s the mess we're in now would never have happened. The state would likely never have imposed a cease and desist order on Cal Am pumping. Cal Am would never have gotten into a costly failed deal with Marina Coast, nor would the company be sinking buckets of capital into their own desal plant to be paid for with our water bills.

But Peninsula voters were led astray by various activist groups claiming that better, faster, and cheaper projects could be had if we just listened to them and ignored the advice of the bureaucrats. But their promises were empty. They never had a plan. In the last quarter century the names of the activists have changed, but their message is the same. They're still promising better, faster, cheaper water if we just listen to them. Unlike the majority of voters I didn't believe them then, and I certainly don't believe them now.

So here's where I stand. I don't care if the water company is public or private. I don't care if our new water supply involves a dam, a desal plant, water hyacinths, or icebergs towed in from Alaska. I don't care if a desal plant is fed by slant wells, open ocean intakes, or a bucket brigade. I don't care whose toes get stepped on, whose feelings get hurt, or whose ideology gets squashed. At this point I don't even care how much it is going to cost. I just want it done!