Desal plant delays could be saving grace for delayed recycled water talks

by Sara Rubin, Monterey County Now 8/25/14

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Anyone who follows the Monterey Peninsula’s quest for a water supply knows that nothing happens quickly. A new delay in the environmental documents for California American Water’s proposed desalination plant in North Marina means up to a six-month delay in producing water.

“While a delay is very regrettable, we agree that it is unavoidable,” Administrative Law Judge Angela Minkin wrote in her ruling, granting an additional four months for a draft environmental impact report analyzing the impacts of Cal Am’s proposed desal plant.

The new ETA for the draft environmental documents is January of 2015.

That sets back the expects start-up date for desalination from July 2018 to late 2018 or early 2019, according to Cal Am’s engineering team, which they presented Monday afternoon to the governance committee of the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority, made up of six Peninsula mayors.

The delay is due to continued analysis by a hydrogeology working group, which is looking at whether the proposed slant wells would draw up water from Monterey Bay, or the Salinas Valley groundwater basin, which would mean the project could exacerbate problems in the over-drafted Salinas aquifer.

The delay has a silver lining to Cal Am and its partners: It alleviates the unresolved negotiations on another aspect of the possible water supply project—recycled wastewater.

A group of about 20 public officials and growers have been meeting for months to hash out an agreement over how to fairly divvy up the stuff we flush down our toilets and what runs down our drains.

It’s been slow going, according to members of the group, known as “meet and confer,” and a compromise has proved elusive after two years of talks. Bob Antle’s sudden passing earlier this month leaves the group without one its agricultural experts and representatives, a further setback.

The crux of the debate: multiple entities, from households to industrial lettuce-washing plants, create wastewater. Much of that goes to a treatment plant in Marina, operated by the Monterey Regional Pollution Control Agency, which thoroughly cleans enough water to irrigate about 12,000 acres of Castroville-area farmland, funneling the water through the highly visible “purple line.”

Now other water-hungry entities—namely, the Peninsula—want in. (Peninsula cities deliver much of the water to the PCA plant.)

If the recycled water system can provide at least 3,000 acre-feet per year to the Peninsula, Cal Am plans to construct a smaller desal plant.

At issue: 19,500 acre-feet of water North Salinas Valley growers lay claim to. There hasn’t actually been 19,500 acre-feet of water since the recycled water plant went online in 1998. The plant’s only at about 60-percent capacity, due partly to conservation measures upstream where residents of Peninsula cities, Moss Landing and Castroville take shorter showers or flush fewer toilets, water officials say.

That’s made it hard for Peninsula interests to get an agreement from the PCA board to let them tap some 3,000 acre-feet from the wastewater supply.

The meetings in 2012 to talk it out were open the public; they’ve since transitioned to closed negotiations, subsequent to a July 2013 settlement agreement.

“Meet-and-confer” negotiations began between the Monterey County Water Resources Agency and the PCA in September 2013 and continued through March of this year, according to PCA counsel Rob Wellington.

In April, the group expanded to include growers and more public entities. “These meetings were by invitation only with each of the five parties inviting those they determined important to attend. Again, these were private negotiation meetings,” Wellington writes by email.

In response to a Public Records Act request, the PCA provided agendas and sign-in sheets for all of the meetings, which lately evolved to a “stakeholder working group.”

The documents show at least two draft agreements on how to share the water; neither was approved.

Representatives of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency; Pollution Control Agency; city of Salinas; Monterey Peninsula Water Management District; Marina Coast Water District; County Board of Supervisors, and growers—including RC Farms, Ocean Mist Farms, T&A, Scattini & Sons, and Paraiso Vineyards—have attended the talks.