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Dozens Speak Up Over Cal Am's Proposed Desal Plant

Erika Mahoney
Over 60 people packed Marina City Hall to watch a livestream of the California Coastal Commission's public hearing on Thursday.

On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission listened to hours of public comments over California American Water’s proposed desalination facility, which aims to provide water to much of the Monterey Peninsula. Part of the project would be located within the City of Marina, but Marina residents won’t get any of the water.

KAZU’s Erika Mahoney attended a livestream of Thursday’s public hearing. 

Doug McKnight (DM): Erika, where in Marina would part of the project be located?

Erika Mahoney (EM): The part of the project that would be located in Marina is the wellfield. These wells would extend down under the seafloor and would extract water. It would be located along the shoreline in the City of Marina where the CEMEX sand mining facility is currently located. This is the last coastal sand mine in the U.S. and it will close next year.

I spoke with Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado before the hearing. 

“So Marina is trying to improve our coastline to protect its valuable assets, both visual, environmental. There's lots of rare plants and animals and then it's groundwater underneath. It is critical to keep the seawater out and protect the water underneath it that we drink,” Delgado said. 

He says after fighting to shut down the sand mining plant, it’s time to restore this environmentally sensitive habitat

DM: What was the turnout for the Coastal Commission public hearing Thursday?

EM: The meeting was held in Half Moon Bay where hundreds turned out to share their support or disapproval of the project. The Coastal Commission also setup a remote location at Marina City Hall with a livestream of the meeting. It was packed inside the council chambers as the hearing began, many brought handheld signs. That’s where I attended

Credit Erika Mahoney
Signs protesting the proposed desal plant hang outside Marina City Council Chambers.

DM: So the Coastal Commission will eventually approve or deny the project, but they didn’t make a final decision on Thursday.

EM: That’s right. The Coastal Commission says it’s not uncommon for them to need more than one hearing on issues that are as complex as this one. However, a staff report recommends denial of the project for several reasons. One, coastal impacts. Also coastal hazards, that coastal erosion could impact the project, and the protection of groundwater. Although the California Public Utilities Commission approved the project last year, the Coastal Commission staff report found competing conclusions about potential impacts on groundwater. Their analysis determined Cal Am may have underestimated the amount of fresh or brackish water the wells would extract from the underlying aquifers that some, like Marina, rely on.

DM: The staff report also has a section that was dedicated to the impact on low-income communities.

EM: The report points out environmental justice concerns, that Marina would carry the negative risks of project and that low income families, including those in Seaside and other areas, would be disproportionately affected by the high cost of desal and possibly forced out of the area.

DM: What does Cal Am say?

EM: The company says they have a ratepayer assistance program for low income customers. Now, one of the main reasons why Cal Am has proposed this desal plant is to provide an alternative source of water to their customers. Cal Am is under orders from the State Water Resources Control Board to reduce taking water from the Carmel River, its main source of water, by 70 percent. The deadline is the end of 2021. Cal Am says without this desal plant, they will miss that deadline, which will result in mandatory cutbacks. 

Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce President Moe Ammar spoke during the public hearing. The chamber represents 410 businesses in Pacific Grove, mostly small mom and pops. 

“Those businesses have not been able to expand due to all the restrictions and the limitations on water [...] and to come at the 11th hour with a proposal, that's gonna be different and better, to me is unsustainable,” Ammar said. 

DM: Is there an alternative water supply project?

EM: The California Commission staff report says there’s a feasible, less costly and less environmentally damaging alternative, an expansion of Pure Water Monterey, the area’s new water recycling plant. But Cal Am says this is intended to be a backup, not an alternative to desal. The Coastal Commission will continue to look into this.

DM: Thank you Erika. The next hearing on this will likely take place in March in Scotts Valley. 

California American Water is one of KAZU’s many business supporters. 

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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