In the News

A single desal plant supplying the greater Monterey Bay area is a long shot.

By Kera Abraham
Monterey County Weekly, 4/19/12

The Monterey Peninsula and Santa Cruz have more in common than whale sightings and farmers markets. They also have overdrafted groundwater basins vulnerable to seawater intrusion. And they’ve both spent years, and millions of dollars, planning desalination projects.

But as the Peninsula’s desal ambitions stall, Santa Cruz is making steady progress. And it doesn’t appear to have much interest in hitching its wagon to ours.

A few key differences: The Peninsula is serviced by the private California American Water Company, while Santa Cruz has a public water department. Cal Am supplies much of the Monterey service area with water illegally overpumped from the Carmel River, while the Santa Cruz Water Department has legal rights to draw from the San Lorenzo River.

In partnership with Soquel Creek Water District, Santa Cruz officials are planning a desal plant with a 2.5-million-gallon-per-day capacity – about one-quarter the size of the Peninsula’s now-scuttled Regional Desalination Project.

Two dueling desal proposals midway between Santa Cruz and Monterey – The People’s Project and DeepWater Desal, both in Moss Landing – aim to supply both thirsty regions, and are courting public agencies to partner on a desal plant as required by Monterey County law. On April 18 (past the Weekly’s deadline), the city of Pacific Grove considered such a relationship with The People’s Project, which would involve $129 million in city-issued bonds, as the Weekly reported in March.

DeepWater Desal CEO Brent Constantz says it makes sense to build a single, streamlined facility to supply the greater Monterey Bay area from Davenport, north of Santa Cruz, to south of Carmel. “DeepWater Desal is building a regional plant,” he says. “That’s why we’re locating in Moss Landing.”

But Santa Cruz Water Chief Bill Kocher, who’s been working on city water supply issues for 26 years, says it’s unlikely Santa Cruz will partner with the Moss Landing venture. “They haven’t even started an EIR process or built a pilot plant,” he says. “Plans are one thing; bricks and mortar is another. I don’t see them outpacing us.”

Nader Agha of The People’s Project scoffs at the $115 million estimate for Santa Cruz’s desal plant: “They’re full of hot air. To me that’s misappropriation and a disservice to the community.” The People’s Project at his Moss Landing Commercial Park can supply Santa Cruz for less than $14 million, he says.

Kocher laughs heartily upon hearing that figure. “Well, that would be pretty record-setting,” he says. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

A pilot desal plant, paired with extensive studies of seawater intake and brine disposal, suggest there are no major barriers to desal in Santa Cruz, Kocher says. A draft environmental impact report, including options for making the plant carbon neutral, is expected to go public this summer.

The Santa Cruz project has its own dose of controversy. The City Council approved a popular vote on the proposed desal plant, but detractors are gathering signatures for a ballot measure that could force an earlier referendum.

The Peninsula, meanwhile, is without a viable EIR since the $400-million Regional Desalination Project fell apart last winter. Under state orders to cut back Carmel River pumping 70 percent by December 2016, Cal Am is expected to present a new water-supply proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission by April 23.

Cal Am officials have said that plan will likely involve expanded aquifer storage and recovery, groundwater recharge and a modest-sized desal plant, possibly in North Marina.

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