A Comprehensive and Slightly Irreverent Guide To Local Water Politics

About three years ago I posted a “Pocket Guide to Local Water Politics” to help poor confused people like me sort out the crazy quilt of interlaced complexities of competing interests. A lot has changed since then, so I thought an updated guide would be in order. Unfortunately, things have become so insanely complex that I must increase the guide to briefcase size.

In the mid 1970s California experienced a severe drought. Here on the Monterey Peninsula residential water users were rationed to 50 gallons per person per day, a huge inconvenience in the days of 3 gallon per flush toilets and 5 gallon per minute shower heads. In 1978 the State Legislature created the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, commonly known as the “Water Board,” to find and construct a new water supply so we would never have to go through that again. Nearly forty years and three droughts later almost nothing has been done. Despite the cries of “not me” echoing throughout the region, pretty much everyone is to blame.

Here are the players. Their specific names have been removed to protect me from the guilty:

1. Monterey Peninsula Voters who, in the mid 1990s, voted down two perfectly good water supply projects that would have solved our problems long ago.

Important Details:
  • The projects were a modest desalination plant in Sand City and a New Los Padres Dam on the Carmel River.

  • The desal plant would have provided us with a drought-proof supplement to sporadic rainfall. It was rejected by voters in 1993 on the grounds that it would cost much more per unit of water than a new dam, which they said was just around the corner.

  • The dam would have provided ample storage to serve the population and help the poor fish by restoring year-round flows to the overdrawn Carmel River. It was rejected in 1995 because voters perceived it as too expensive, growth inducing, and environmentally damaging.

  • Had local voters approved both of these projects we would not be in the legal mess we are in today and the current drought would be just a minor inconvenience.

  • What in blazes were they thinking?!?!?!?!?!?!?

  • For the record: I voted for both projects.

2. A State Water Board which determined that the local Private Water Company was legally entitled to only one third of the water it was pumping out of the ground in Carmel Valley, the Peninsula's primary source of water for over 100 years. The board issued a cease and desist order (CDO) to take effect at the end of 2016.

Points to ponder:
  • Everyone on the Peninsula is desperate to find a new water supply.

  • There is a general consensus that a desalination plant is the best option.

  • If we don't meet the deadline the Private Water Company will be forced to pay huge fines, or limit water deliveries, or some combination thereof. Nobody knows how the State will enforce the order.

  • Oh crap: We're not going to meet the deadline.

3. The County which arbitrarily passed an ordinance saying that any desalination plants built in Monterey County must be publicly owned.

But wait:
  • There is some question as to whether or not The County has legal jurisdiction over utility companies. Some say that is the domain of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). If that is true then The County's ordinance is probably not enforceable.

  • The County doesn't seem to have a problem with private ownership of the Carmel Valley dams (see below), so why do they care if the same company owns a desal plant?

  • And why single out water? If the same logic applied to other utilities, then electrical generation plants should also be publicly owned, right? But that's a topic for another day.

4. The Local Water Board which devised and presented two water supply projects to Peninsula Voters for their approval.

The results:
  • Voters rejected both projects (see above).

  • After voters rejected the two projects the Water Board could find no credible alternatives and has basically been adrift ever since.

  • The Water Board has since developed a reputation, not fully deserved, as a do-nothing agency.

  • Throughout its history, the Water Board has been accused of abusing its authority over new water uses to control development on the Monterey Peninsula.

  • Its reputation was so bad that in 2002 Monterey Peninsula Voters passed an advisory measure asking the state legislature to dissolve the Water Board. Presumably, had the legislature complied – which it didn't – that would have left the Private Water Company (see below) on its own to develop a water supply.

5. The Private Water Company which has been the Monterey Peninsula's water provider for as long as water has been needed here.

Some facts:
  • Although The Company has “California” and “American” in its name, the parent company is actually based in Germany.

  • In the first half of the 20th Century, the Private Water Company built two dams on the Carmel River called San Clemente and Los Padres.

  • The Company has been criticized for not dredging the two reservoirs periodically, instead letting sediment build up which significantly reduced their capacity.

  • The San Clemente reservoir filled almost completely with sediment. The Dam is currently being dismantled at customer expense.

  • For over three decades The Company let the Local Water Board take the lead in finding a new water supply project.

  • When the Local Water Board failed to deliver, and with the CDO deadline fast approaching, the Company entered into a complex agreement with a Neighboring Water District (see below) to build a Regional Desalination Project (RDP) outside the Private Water Company's service area.

  • After the agreement with the Neighboring Water District collapsed (see below), and with the CDO deadline immanent, the Private Water Company understandably gave up on working with incompetent public bureaucracies and decided to build a desal plant on its own. Plans call for it to be built within the boundaries of the Neighboring Water District which has generated considerable friction between The Company and the Neighboring Water District.

  • The most optimistic construction schedule shows The Company's desal plant won't be operational until 2020, thus missing the CDO deadline by about four years.

  • The Company has skirted the County requirement that desal plants be publicly owned through some sort of agreement that resolved whatever disputes arose between The Company and The County during the failure of the RDP.

  • The Company hopes to employ “slant well” technology to draw ocean water into the desal plant. Slant wells are drilled near the shore at an angle (as opposed to straight down) so that the intakes are located in the soggy sand just below the ocean floor.

  • Slant wells are preferred over “open ocean” intakes by environmental groups and regulatory agencies because they will not suck up ocean life along with the seawater. However, critics in the Neighboring Water District believe the slant wells will also draw some fresh water from the Neighboring District's groundwater supplies, and they are accusing the Private Water Company of stealing their water.

  • Earlier this year The Company drilled a slant well for testing purposes to determine if the technology will work as expected. The test well was challenged in court by the Neighboring Water District, but a judge allowed the test to proceed.

  • The slant well testing is so far inconclusive. The Company discovered a drop in groundwater levels in the neighborhood of the test well. It is not yet known if the drop was caused by the slant well or nearby agricultural wells. The Company says it is the latter while the Neighboring Water District says “Nya, nya, we told you so!” The test well is currently shut down pending further analysis by actual scientists.

  • Egg on their faces: It turns out that one of the consultants hired by The Company to analyze the test well results has a conflict of interest in that he also holds some patents on slant well technology.

6. The Neighboring Water District came into the picture a few years ago with a proposal to save the Private Water Company from the ineffective Water Board. It was called the Regional Desalination Project (RDP).

Here's where everything went completely bonkers:
  • The RDP plan involved three public agencies. 1. The Neighboring Water District which would own the desal plant, 2. A County Water Agency which would own the pipes to get ocean water into the plant, and 3. A Regional Wastewater Agency which would be in charge of the salty residue discharged back into the ocean.

  • The Private Water Company would be the plant's primary customer. The Neighboring Water District would also use some of the water produced for its own needs.

  • The Neighboring Water District would have control over the plant management and operations.

  • The Private Water Company's customers would pay for the plant, but have no significant influence over its management. This raised alarm bells among Monterey Peninsula residents who felt that they would be at the mercy of the Neighboring Water District, which at the time was widely regarded as so dysfunctional that the Peninsula's useless Water Board looked like King Solomon by comparison.

  • The California PUC's Division of Ratepayer Advocates had similar concerns.

  • Due to the sheer complexity of the plan and the distrust it generated among Peninsula residents the project would probably have collapsed under its own weight eventually. Its demise was mercifully hastened when it was discovered that a key player in the project's development had a serious conflict of interest in that he was working for both a public agency and a private contractor advising the same agency.

  • As I predicted in 2010 the RDP players are now suing each other, trying to recover the money they spent on this unworkable scheme. Each side claims the others were at fault, and nobody is taking responsibility themselves.

  • Meanwhile, the Neighboring Water District, being no longer on speaking terms with the Private Water Company, is trying every legal trick in the book to stop the Private Water Company from building its own desal plant within the boundaries of the Neighboring Water District.

  • Last May the local Congressman actually suggested that the Neighboring Water District 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.”

  • Isn't this fun???

  • Only if you can watch it from a safe distance!

7. After the RDP collapsed it became evident that none of the relevant public agencies were competent enough to find a new water supply. So the six Mayors of the six Monterey Peninsula cities got together and formed a plan: Create a new public agency! They call it the Water Authority, and the Mayors put themselves in charge.

Their mission:
  • Get all of the players, the public water agencies, the Private Water Company, the Business Association, and the Citizen Groups into one room and hash out a solution agreeable to everyone. It's sorta like herding cats, and has turned out to be just as effective.

  • The Authority analyzed three competing desal plant proposals (see above for one and look below for the other two) and voted the Private Water Company's project as Most Likely To Succeed. This pleased the Private Water Company (see above) and local Business Association (see below), and really upset the Citizen Groups (see below) and the Neighboring Water District (see above).

  • Just to be safe, The Authority declared the Deep Water project (see below) as their second favorite. They directed the Water Board to oversee the Deep Water project on a parallel track as a “Plan B” in case the Private Water Company's project fell apart. Good idea.

  • The Authority is also exploring the best ways to grovel before the State Water Board to request an extension of the CDO deadline.

8. A Prominent Local Businessman who, for several years now, has claimed to have the perfect desal plant idea called The People's Project.

All you need to know:
  • It would be built on property he owns adjacent to the Moss Landing power plant.

  • It would use existing seawater intakes (built in the 1940s) used by a previous business on the same site. The Prominent Local Businessman theorizes that using existing intakes will be okey-dokey with the ocean protection people.

  • One problem: His property is currently under threat of foreclosure.

9. Deep Water Desal is the “Plan B” of the Water Authority.

The basics:
  • That's actually its real name. I couldn't come up with a generic pseudonym.

  • It is so named because the ocean intakes would be located in a deep part of the ocean where fewer critters live to get sucked into the pipes. Its proponents believe that this will be acceptable to the ocean protection people, but nobody knows for sure.

  • According to recent news reports the project directors claim that they can get the plant up and running sometime in 2017, missing the CDO deadline, but only by a few months instead of several years. However, their website does not show a timetable, not even on their “Costs & Timeline” page which only mentions costs and financing.

  • The project does not yet have an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which will take the better part of a year to prepare. Construction can't begin without it.

  • Ahem.... 2017 is only 16 months away!

10. A handful of Citizen Groups are also in the mix. Their favorite activity is writing mind-numbing guest commentaries in the Local Newspaper, almost every week for the past few years.

What they say and do:
  • They say the Private Water Company is a greedy, heartless corporation that is only interested in profits and doesn't care about its customers.

  • They blame the Private Water Company for all of our water problems. To justify that conclusion they have implied that Peninsula Voters, the Water Board, and the Neighboring Water District are all perfectly angelic innocent victims of The Company.

  • The are absolutely convinced, and believe it should be obvious to everyone, that only thing that will save us from the Private Water Company is a public takeover of the Private Water Company.

  • Twice in the last ten years they have put measures before voters to study the feasibility of having the Local Water Board take over the Private Water Company. Yup, we're talking about the same Local Water Board the voters voted to remove from the face of the Earth (see above). Needless to say, both ballot measures failed.

  • Members of these groups reluctantly admit that they underestimated the depth of public animosity towards the Local Water Board, but they still insist that the measures would have passed if the Private Water Company hadn't spent so much money on the NO side of the campaign.

  • Golly, they're so cute when they fantasize.

  • They oppose the Private Water Company's desal plant, and support the other two (see above).

  • They declared that the Private Water Company's slant well test would be a failure even before the test well was drilled. They have even accused the Private Water Company of knowing it would fail before it was drilled. When asked for evidence they tend to get unusually quiet.

  • To their credit they have rightly questioned why businesses pay lower water rates than residential customers.

  • But they're into conspiracy theories. For example, because the Mayors' Water Authority supports the Private Water Company's desal plant, they say that the Authority is in cahoots with The Company to keep business rates low and residential rates high.

  • They're really into conspiracy theories. They say the conflict of interest problem that killed the Neighboring Water District's Regional Desal Project was deliberately manufactured by the Private Water Company to kill the RDP and leave The Company free to build its own plant so it could keep all of the profits. Problem with the theory: The Company was free to join or not join the RDP agreement, so there was no need to resort to devious means to get out of it.

  • They insist that if the State Water Board imposes fines on the Private Water Company for failing to meet the CDO deadline, then The Company's stockholders should pay the fines, not water customers. Their reasoning: we all know that the Private Water Company is to blame for everything, and the Voters and Local Water Board are completely innocent. Right? Right????

11. Finally, there is a Business Association, which is solidly backing whatever water project looks most promising at any given point in time.

More details:
  • Their spokesperson is a well known general manager of a prominent Monterey hotel.

  • The Association is scared to death of the CDO because if water deliveries are forcibly curtailed then many, many businesses would be forced to cut back services and eliminate jobs. Hotels and restaurants would be especially hard hit. It's a legitimate concern.

  • Even if the State Water Board imposes fines instead of water cutbacks, the cost of water would increase the cost of doing business, costs which may have to be passed onto customers.

So there it is, the whole situation in a nutshell. No, that's wrong. It's a freakin' nuthouse! Don't feel bad if you don't understand it. It is all quite incomprehensible to any sane person. If, by chance, you think you do understand it you are advised to seek psychiatric help as soon as possible.


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