Five parties negotiating over recycled wastewater supply near agreement

by Sara Rubin, Monterey County Weekly, 9/19/14

It’s easy to experience a sense of deja vu when it comes to Monterey County politics. The issues have a way of repeating themselves.

No different when the water supply in question is the stuff that runs down our drains or gets flushed down the toilet.

Five parties have been fiercely negotiating for who gets how much treated water out of the regional water treatment plant in Marina. The ferocity is perhaps a sign of the times: California is parched, and even wastewater looks enticing.

There’s also, of course, the impending 2016 state deadline for California American Water to stop over-pumping the Carmel River and provide an alternate water source for the Monterey Peninsula. If the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency, which runs the water treatment plant, can expand its water treatment program, they’ll help out Peninsula water users with groundwater replenishment, or what they’re called “Monterey Pure Water.” If that project gets off the ground, Cal Am can build a smaller, less costly, desal plant.

But there’s been tension since the beginning over whether agricultural interests—which currently use recycled wastewater for irrigating Castroville-area fields—will play nice with the Peninsula.

Friday morning, 17 representatives of various interests—the Pollution Control Agency, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, Monterey County Water Resources Agency, agriculture, Marina Coast Water District and the city of Salinas—met to try and hash out a memorandum of understanding between all the parties.

The draft MOU, which has been in the works for going on two years, heads to the Water Resources Agency board of directors for approval on Monday. The boards and council of the other respectives parties (MPWMD, Salinas and Marina Coast) each have to approve the MOU as well for the project to be viable.

The PCA and Water Management District have spent about $10 million so far on studies and analysis. They’re at work on an environmental impact report for Pure Water Monterey, and need to complete it by May for Public Utilities Commission approval.

To do that, they need specific agreements in place on which entity contributes how much water, who pays how much for new infrastructure, and how much water each entity can use no later than March 31. The draft MOU expires on that date.

Today’s discussion seemed to bring the parties close to an agreement—but the MOU is simply an agreement to agree. They’re setting the stage simply for continued deliberation over the specific cost and water agreements still needed.

If all five partner entities sign off on the MOU, it sets the stage for all parties to talk specifics—which feels like they’re back to square one.

Some people wanted more, like Dennis Sites of Ocean Mist Farms. “You started out by saying there’s an agreement to agree,” he said. “It’s an agreement to try to agree. That makes me a little concerned.”

But it’s actually progress, says Water Resources Agency GM David Chardavoyne. “When it was just MCWRA and PCA, we weren’t making any progress,” he says. “When Monterey Peninsula Water Management District came into the picture and provided some adult supervision, we started making progress.”

Some highlights of that progress, per the draft MOU and this morning’s meeting, which was facilitated by Water Management District GM Dave Stoldt:

  • Stoldt kicked off the meeting with this: “Perfect is the enemy of the good. I always attributed that to (County Supervisor) Dave Potter, but apparently it was Voltaire.”
  • If any new water rights are granted from the State Water Resources Control Board, the county Water Resources Agency gets to keep them. Stoldt and Chardavoyne plan to clarify that language in the MOU by Monday.
  • “We’re highly confident some level of water rights will get granted,” Stoldt said. However, he cautioned that there might be some environmental opposition to using these waters: Reportedly, a CSU Monterey Bay professor has seen steelhead in Gabilan Creek.
  • Nancy Isakson, president of the Salinas Valley Water Coalition, which represents agricultural water interests, suggested that Stoldt strike the mention of water rights. “The Salinas River and surface water rights were mentioned a few times in this room,” said Rich Smith, a coalition member and owner of Paraiso Vineyards near Soledad. “Just printing those words in the [MOU] is going to cause indigestion from Bradley to Castroville.” (If you want to know why, take a look at the Weekly’s recent cover story on the Salinas River and water rights history.)
  • Smith was seeking a clearer explanation of how the expansion would benefit ag interests, when it clearly benefits the Peninsula. “The Valley is full of political influences,” he said. “I’m a young guy, and I’m 70. It’s not easy for me to sit in the Water Coalition meetings and say, ‘What we’re doing is actually a good thing.'”
  • Seaside Mayor Ralph Rubio tried to assuage some of Smith’s suspicions that the Peninsula users would somehow cut off ag down the road. “I  take you at face value for being an honorable gentleman; I would hope you would do the same for me,” he said.
  •  “The idea that we’re go to shut it off…I’m not looking at an end-all benefit just for the Peninsula. We’re not closed systems, we’re not silos.”
  • If approved, the MOU will eliminate a previous claim growers have insisted on. It’s an amendment granting up 19,500 acre-feet per year of treated water to growers in the Castroville area. That number would be replaced by today’s existing supply, which is lower, about 15,500.
  • Part of why the 19,500 acre-foot threshold hasn’t been met is because of improved conservation measures by household users; more efficient washers, shower heads and toilets means less water for PCA to treat and reuse.

A few people pointed out that all of this water—toilet water, urban runoff, ag-polluted ditches, industrial wastewater—was once a liability. Now each entity views it as an asset.

“This never says it’s an agreement to agree, it’s an agreement to negotiate,” Stoldt said.