There is a third water supply option


Guest Commentary, Monterey County Herald
June 21, 2013

The proposed California American Water water supply project has two options: desalination-only as a new water source; or two-thirds desalination plus one-third groundwater replenishment (GWR). Both options have serious problems to stop them from ever seeing the light of day.

Fortunately, a third option is emerging: GWR, with no Cal Am involvement, plus a publicly owned desalination plant at Moss Landing that together could provide all the water we need. Of the three, this is the option that WaterPlus would strongly recommend. Here is why.

The desalination-only option triples the value of Cal Am and our water bills, as well. That is because the Public Utilities Commission will authorize the company to match the $400 million debt on the project with an even larger amount of paper equity to preserve the company's credit rating. Ratepayers would not only have to pay the $400 million, but PUC-authorized 6.6 percent interest on the debt, plus 9.9 percent profit on the equity in addition to federal, state and local taxes. This is not the fault of Cal Am. It is simply the cost of doing business - a cost too high for ratepayers.

In the public interest, the mayors' Regional Water Authority cannot support this option. Neither can the Salinas-area farming community. This project would draw its source water from the Salinas Valley groundwater basin, to which farmers who have paid to prevent saltwater intrusion have prior rights.

Cal Am's GWR-plus-desalination, or "portfolio," option may be even worse. According to available data, its cost would be about $1,000 per acre-foot greater than the desalination-only option. Though the portfolio option could use treated sewer water that farmers can't use in the winter and would have a smaller carbon footprint, these environmental benefits cannot justify a "premium" of $1,000 per acre-foot. A premium that large likely would be more than enough to pay for a storage facility for the treated sewer water in the winter and solar energy to supply all the power needed for desalination - both as environmentally friendly as GWR. Cost is not the only problem. Farmers possess the rights to almost all treated sewer water.

Although the GWR portion of the third option is not without problems, the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency responsible for GWR has shown the willingness and ability to resolve them. Perhaps the greatest problem is the issue of water rights. Addressing this problem, the agency has evolved GWR from a project dependent entirely on treated sewer water to one that would draw almost all of its water supply from other sources - mainly agricultural, industrial and urban runoff water. Enough of this water exists to meet at least half of our water needs, about 5,000 acre-feet per year.

Still, serious problems remain, mostly involving risks to public health and the environment. Some of them are possible toxins in water sources; the porosity of the Seaside aquifer, where the product water is stored before distribution; and a flow rate between injection and extraction wells not slow enough to assure the water is underground long enough to meet public health standards.

Another issue is the unavailability of enough naturally potable water to mix with the GWR product water injected into the aquifer - to say nothing about disposal of the possibly toxic brew remaining from the water-purification process. The environmental impact report being prepared will address these issues, which the pollution control agency must resolve.

Under these circumstances, WaterPlus makes these recommendations:

1. The pollution control agency should proceed further with its evolutionary process to obtain all of its water for GWR treatment from sources other than sewer water and to design its new treatment plant with capacity to provide at least half of the water the Peninsula needs in the event the two options proposed by Cal Am fail.

The needed potable water for the project can come from the Carmel River via the aquifer storage and recovery system already in place. Economies of scale and low interest rates, minus profits and taxes, can bring down the project cost to a level ratepayers could afford.

If the project includes a storage facility for unused treated sewer water in the winter, it would truly be a regional project for the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula.

2. Nader Agha should build a desalination plant at his Moss Landing site to provide the other half of the Peninsula's water needs, in addition to water needed by Santa Cruz County and North Monterey County. Eventual sale of the plant to a public agency could bring all the cost benefits to ratepayers that the GWR project would bring. Altogether, this would be a win-win-win situation for the two sides of Monterey County and Santa Cruz County.

Weitzman lives in Carmel and heads WaterPlus.

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