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Water Woes: People's Moss Landing Goes Back to the Future

Doug McKnight

Credit Doug McKnight
Existing pipeline on the site of the proposed People's Moss Landing Desalination Project

California American Water is moving forward with its plan to solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply problem.  And the company Deepwater Desal has been tapped as a back-up.  So what does that mean for the People’s Moss Landing Desalination Project? 

Pacific Grove businessman Nader Agha shows off the proposed site for his desalination plant with the pride of a   young couple showing off their first condominium.  “We have five acres over there. So everything is here. Everything is in front of us. Everything is existent. And it could be done so quickly,” said Agha.  The People’s Moss Landing Desalination project will be built at an industrial park just south of the Dynegy Power Plant and across the street from the marina in Moss Landing. 

It was once owned by industrialist Henry Kaiser who built it to extract magnesium metal from seawater during World War Two.  So the property already has much of the infrastructure in place for a Desal plant. There are pipes running from the marina under Highway 1, as well as pumps and holding tanks.  Adding to the location’s appeal is how close it is to seawater. “We own that portion of the ocean where we call it the harbor enclave.  That’s part of our property.  We are the only ones in Monterey County who owns portion of the ocean where it is industrially zoned,” said Agha.  Desal plants use an enormous amount of energy. And Agha says another advantage of his site is its proximity to the Dynegy generators.  “We are right next to the power plant, which we could get the electricity over the fence if we buy it by the bulk per year on a very reduced price,” said Agha.

Agha has been proposing a desal plant on this site for about two years. California American Water, the peninsula’s water supplier, has been ordered to stop over pumping on the Carmel River by 2017.  If it doesn’t, the Monterey Peninsula will face severe water rationing.  Agha’s plan gained some momentum when the City of Pacific Grove reached a preliminary agreement to support his desal effort. Then recently a group of peninsula mayors, including the Mayor of Pacific Grove, and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District offered conditional support to Cal-Am’s plan.  “I don’t understand why those mayors and the Water Management District are behind Cal-Am like Cal-Am is their boss and their leader. They are forgetting that the rate payers and the citizens and the voters and the constituents are the bosses not Cal-Am,” said Agha.

Water Management District General Manager Dave Stoldt says the proposal Agha made to the district had several errors, starting with that bulk rate he claims he’ll get on power. “A statement about getting a certain price for power that they couldn’t get and that it is known they couldn’t get.  There was some confusion over the wells. They were stat ed to be subsurface and they are really open water wells,” said Stoldt.  A technical consultant for Agha says the plan is to upgrade the intake from open water to subsurface in order to protect marine life in the harbor.

Still the Water Management District has given its conditional support to Cal-Am and chosen as a back-up plan the competing DeepwaterDesal project, which plans to locate across the street from Agha’s site.  That said, Stoldt believes Agha’s People’s project has options.  “They could try to develop it for north county’s needs, for Santa Cruz’s needs, city of Salinas’ needs, and then if you’ve moved far enough along and Cal-Am is still having difficulties then you are at a point where you can say hey wait, we can serve you too,” said Stoldt. 

Cal-Am’s desal plant, the one most likely to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, is a strictly private deal with no public ownership. Water activist George Riley says that’s mistake. He met me on the commercial wharf in Monterey.  Looking out at the seawater that will be the source for any desal project, Riley talked about the need for public participation to keep the costs down. In fact accepting public financing is a condition of the mayors’ group support of Cal-Am.  “When you can finance any public project with public financing bonds you get a lower interest cost.  So if you can cut down the interest costs then that’s a major way to reduce the total cost of the project, and therefore lower the cost to the ratepayer,” said Riley.  Cal-Am says it will consider a public contribution, but with its own conditions. 

Riley adds Cal-Am faces a number of challenges at the present location and they have already conceded they will not make the 2017 deadline.  “We don’t want to pay for the risks of going down a track and having that blocked and then another risky step and having that blocked. Meantime we’ve spent all this money. We could have been spending money on a less risky project,” said Riley.  As for NadarAgha, he believes his plan is that less risky project and plans to build his plant regardless.  Agha has filed a proposal with the PUC and is meeting with a PUC representative on Tuesday. 

Catch up with the rest of this series on the Monterey Peninsula’s Water Supply problem.  Click for our stories onCal-Am’s Water Supply Project and DeepwaterDesal.

Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.
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