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Water Woes: Cal-Am Takes Portfolio Approach

Krista Almanzan

A deadline looms on the Monterey Peninsula.  It needs a new source of water by 2017 or faces severe rationing.  Next week testimony begins before the California Public Utilities Commission on California American Water’s plan.   Over the next three days, we’ll look at the Cal-Am project and two other projects that claim to have the solution to the water supply problem that hangs over Monterey Peninsula residents and businesses. 

On a recent Monday morning, the lobby at the waterfront Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa is bustling. Conference attendees make their way downstairs, while the concierge helps a bride load a luggage cart with mementos from her weekend wedding.  General Manager John Narigi walks the hall toward an area of the hotel guests never see. “This used to be my laundry room,” said Narigi.  “Used to be” since the hotel just started outsourcing its laundry services.  Sheets, towels and linens are now sent 120 miles south to Paso Robles.  “That will be a huge savings as it relates to water conservation, not to mention a huge savings on the price tag for the hotel. Hopefully it will work out. Paso Robles is a long way away,” said Narigi. Anything that involves water at the hotel also includes a way to conserve it, from low flow toilets to a kitchen redesigned for water savings and removing all grass from the property.  “You can only conserve so much when you talk about a Peninsula who’s number one industry is tourism. You know?  How far do you go with the paying guest? It’s also your economic engine. It’s also your jobs. A lot to lose,” said Narigi.

That’s why Narigi says it would be devastating if January 1, 2017 rolls around with no solution to Monterey Peninsula’s water supply problem. That’s the deadline set in the state’s Cease and Desist Order ordering California American Water to stop overdrawing water from the Carmel River.   If the deadline is missed, severe water rationing begins.  So Narigi who is also co-chair of a Coalition of Peninsula Businesses, is ready for the solution now.  “We have got to get water.  And whether it’s project A, B or C really doesn’t’ make a difference to the business community, nor to the residents, I believe. But the project or the horse you get on better have the best chance of getting past the goal line, and right now it is hands down Cal-Am’s project,” said Narigi.

Cal-Am’s Water’s Water Supply Project takes a three pronged approached.  First there’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery, this expands a practice already in use where Cal-Am takes overflows off the Carmel River during the winter months and stores it in the Seaside Groundwater Basin for later use.  Next it includes Groundwater Replenishment, or recycled water.  This component is a project of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency that would highly treat wastewater before returning it to the Seaside Basin.  Finally Cal-Am will build a desalination plant with a underground intake on the coast north of Marina.  The size of the plant depends on the success of the recycled water project. “What we’ve asked the state to consider in reviewing our project is to study the combination of recycled water and desal, but if the recycled water project isn’t ready to go in time to meet the deadline, then we also want to the state to approve us to build a larger desal plant if we have to go there,” said Catherine Bowie, Cal-Am’s Manager of External Affairs.

With this project Cal-Am will increase the Peninsula’s water supply creating additional water for lots of record and economic recovery for the tourism industry.   There is one catch.  Cal-Am already doesn’t expect to meet the deadline. Bowie says the company will eventually ask for an extension.  “The wisdom is that right now would not be the time to ask for leniency. I think that from the state’s point of view, this community has been trying to develop a new water supply since the mid-1990s,” said Bowie.

The Cal-Am project recently got a boost when it received conditional support from the Monterey Peninsula Water Authority, a coalition of the six mayors in the area serviced by Cal-Am.  Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett is Vice President of the mayors' Group.  He’s hoping the deadline can still be met by condensing the permitting schedule.  “Now realistically there’s also going to be some things that go wrong.  And I think that what ultimately will matter is one that we are pursuing multiple projects, a portfolio approach, and so it’s, even if one project gets delayed we will be able to continue moving forward on the other project,” said Burnett.  The support of the mayors group is dependent on eight conditions.  Burnett will testify before the California Public Utilities Commission, urging the PUC to require Cal-Am to accept those conditions.

So the Cal-Am Project still has lots of hurdles : approval by the PUC then the Coastal Commission, and as it tests the underground intake for its desal plant it will be closely watched by Salinas Valley farmers who worry Cal-Am could accidently tap into their aquifer.  

Follow the rest of this series on the Monterey Peninsula’s Water Supply problem.  Click for our stories on  Deepwater Desal and the People's Moss Landing Desalination Project.

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.
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