Activists and local government officials across Monterey County have banded together to fight a proposed desalination plant that could double the cost of water for some residents and endanger an aquifer that serves low-income communities.

Opponents say the plant could cause saltwater to seep into the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, the aquifer that provides freshwater to much of Monterey County.

California American Water (CalAm), an investor-owned public utility, however, says the plant is needed to fulfill the Monterey Peninsula’s water needs, and that the effects on other communities will be minimal, if any.

The water provided by the plant would mostly serve the affluent part of the region, while the aquifer at risk provides water to low-income communities. As a result, opponents say the plant creates an environmental justice problem.

Desalination is a costly technology that extracts salt from seawater to make it potable.

Funded by public monies, investors and customers, CalAm estimates the project will cost $329 million over 30 years, including a pipeline that has already been constructed. The average bill of a CalAm customer in the affected areas is now about $90, and with the desalination project, the company expects it to rise by about 50% to around $136. 

“The Monterey Peninsula has a long, long history of trying to develop a sustainable water supply. This has been going on since the 1970s,” said Catherine Stedman, CalAm’s Central California Manager of External Affairs, referencing decades of blocked or discontinued projects. “This project has come the furthest of any.”

Opponents include Monterey County Supervisor Jane Parker, who called for a “legal and affordable” alternative to the desalination project.

“(The project) will suck millions of gallons a day out of the already-overdrawn Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, which is what Marina, Salinas, Chualar, Soledad, Greenfiend and our ag communities rely on for their water, and will incur seawater incursion and lower the groundwater level,” said Parker. The ground level might sink, she said.

Instead, Parker and others advocated Monday for a publicly-owned water recycling plant, which they said would keep costs lower and provide sufficient water.

Monterey resident Diane Cotton attended a protest against the project Monday and said she agreed that a recycling plant was the best way forward. A former high school counselor at Seaside High School and Monterey High School, Cotton recently moved to Monterey from Seaside. Cotton worries her former neighbors will face higher bills as water is siphoned off and sent to the wealthiest on the Peninsula. As it is, she said, the cost of living is only climbing.

“I want my students’ students to live where their parents live,” said Cotton. “I don’t think that’s happening.”

Daniel Cruz, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and younger brother in Marina, says his family’s water bills are already too high. Cruz mans the register at California Grill in Seaside, where he works alongside his uncle, selling tacos.

His parents cut him a deal — he pays $500 in rent each month on their $2,100 apartment, and they take care of the rest of the bills.

“My mom, she complains about the water,” Cruz said. “She says the bill is too high, and we’re not even using (a lot of) water at home.”

Due to work and school obligations, he says, he and his family are rarely home. But if the cost of their water increased, he expects he’d have to pick up extra shifts at work to help cover the tap tab, and that his parents might have to do so, too.

A three-pronged approach

CalAm faces an uphill battle to find other ways to provide water if its desalination project is blocked. By 2021 it will no longer be allowed to siphon water from the Carmel River during the rainy months, after a decision by the State Water Resources Control Board related to protecting a fish species.

CalAm currently diverts and stores Carmel River water throughout the rest of the year in the Seaside groundwater basin in order to meet the demands of its customers. It has been required over the years to slowly lessen the amount it diverts from the river. The company estimates that this latest step, however, will cut its water output in half, said Stedman.

To make up for the lost Carmel River water, CalAm proposed a three-pronged solution: the desalination plant, a recycled water project called Pure Water Monterey and an aquifer storage recovery project, which would expand an existing storage program.

The desalination project will include building slant wells in an aquifer in the Marina area. The project would siphon off seawater and brackish water and send the desalinated water south to spots like Pacific Grove, Carmel and Monterey. Because an amount of freshwater would likely be drawn as well, none of that water can be sold outside the Salinas Valley Basin.

For at least the last decade, desalination plants have come into the conversation as a way to continue to supply water to California’s growing population. In 2018 nearly 40 million people called the state home. By 2055 the state could boast a population of 50 million, according to a California Department of Finance estimate.

However, a 2016 study by the Pacific Institute found that building desalination plants on the coast would top the list among the costliest water fixes.

“It’s a significant investment, but the alternative is not having enough water to meet our customers’ demands,” CalAm’s Stedman said.

In a letter to the Coastal Commission signed by 28 elected officials on the Peninsula as well as in Salinas, local officials requested that the commission deny CalAm’s permit for the desalination project. The commission is scheduled to consider the permit at its Nov. 14 meeting in Half Moon Bay.

“The economic impact of this unnecessary project would be a hardship on the entire community,” the letter read. “…Monterey Peninsula Cal Am customers already pay the highest cost in the nation for water and this desalination project would double residents’ water bills. It would make water unaffordable for many and create an environmental injustice issue for our lower income communities of Marina and Seaside.”

Protesters and local government leaders gather on the lawn of Colton Hall in Monterey to rally against California American Water’s proposed desal plant. Photo by Kate Cimini/The Californian

The opposition estimates it will cost far more than the $329 million that CalAm estimates. Instead, they say it could reach $1.2 billion over 30 years to build and maintain the desalination project. They believe that the recycled water plant would come in at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers, at $190 million over the same time period.

Stedman said she did not know where the protesters got their $1.2 billion estimate. However, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD) General Manager David Stoldt said the number came from CalAm’s own spreadsheets earlier in the permit-approval process.

“There has a been a lot of convenient amnesia on the part of the company,” said Stoldt. “The $329 million is in capital cost to build (the desalination plant). $1.2 billion is the 30-year total out-of-pocket costs to build and run it.”

MPWMD has not taken an official position over whether a desalination plant should be built or not, Stoldt said. Still, he added, the Coastal Commission, which approves permits, never looked into when the Peninsula would see the increased demand that CalAm anticipates.

By utilizing recycled water from Pure Water Monterey, an organization MPWMD is funding, the Peninsula likely wouldn’t see a shortage until 2050, he said.

For some, the cost attached to the CalAm project is the sticking point.

“CalAm has a monopoly,” said protester Doug Williams of Carmel at Monday’s rally. “It’s a legal monopoly but it’s a monopoly. So they get rewarded the more money they spend. I think this is an overreach on their part.”

Daniel Cruz works the register at the California Grill, a Seaside restaurant. He worries that rising water bills will mean he will have to work extra shifts. Photo by Kate Cimini/The Californian

A burden on low-income communities?

Should saltwater intrusion occur, the residents of Seaside, Marina, Salinas and others would be forced to foot the bill for remediation, local officials allege. In a worst-case scenario, they would have to draw water from different aquifers entirely within the basin.

Seaside has a 14.9% poverty rate; Marina’s is 14.4% and in Salinas, it is 17.2%, well above the state average of 12.8%, 2018 data from the U.S. census estimates. In those cities and towns, while the median income ranges between 54,000 and $60,000 annually, the per capita income ranges from only $19,268 to $27,211.

In contrast, the Peninsula is home to some of California’s wealthiest residents, just miles away. Median incomes in Carmel, Pacific Grove and Monterey range between $73,942 and $87,532; per capita incomes are between $41,846 and $62,356, two to three times the per capita income in Seaside, Salinas or Marina.

In Carmel and Pacific Grove, the poverty rate sits at 6.5% and 6.7% respectively, about half the statewide average and one-third of the poverty rate of its neighbor, Salinas. Monterey, with 11.3% of residents living at or below the federal definition of poverty, comes in slightly below the statewide rate.

Local officials say poorer residents can ill-afford the cost of fixing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer they rely upon.

“Seventy-six percent of Seaside residents are on CalAm,” said Seaside Mayor Ian Oglesby. ‘”They’re increasingly challenged by rising water costs, and sometimes have to make the choice between feeding your family, paying for housing, or for water.”

His residents, he said, would suffer the cost so the rest of CalAm’s customers could enjoy a free-flowing tap. “Eventually we’re going to need a public regional desalination project, though,” he said.

According to Stedman, CalAm is not forgetting about poorer communities. It intends to sell some of the treated water to Castroville, “a disadvantaged community facing severe water issues,” she said.

Monitoring wells will check for salt

Despite concerns of costs associated with saltwater intrusion, CalAm asserts that a series of indicator wells around the slant wells will be carefully monitored. CalAm is responsible for monitoring the wells and shutting down the project should intrusion start to occur.

The monitoring wells are “the canary in the coalmine,” said Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot. “There’s already a safety net in place should there be any intrusion.”

Groot, who represents the interests of the growers in Monterey County, says the agricultural community is supportive of the project after some initial concerns. The Environment Impact Report’s results are what changed growers’ minds, he said.

“The intent of the project is to draw brackish water of the area of the coastal intrusion and the (environmental impact report) supports the theory that it will improve the coastal zone by removing the brackish water and allowing freshwater to fill it in,” said Groot. “The environmental studies are showing it could potentially improve the quality of water.” 

“We’re very supportive of the Peninsula developing a long-term water supply system so we don’t have to go through this again in ten years,” Groot added.

Thus far, CalAm has come through the victor on all legal pushback by local communities. The project has faced nine court actions and won eight; the ninth is still pending.

Ric Motta, who works in Seaside at American Lock and Key, lives within walking distance of his work, within the area of Seaside that gets its water through CalAm. A transplant from North Dakota, he said the climbing cost of living squeezes his budget.

Although he pays $1,200 on his one-bedroom apartment, he has faced annual increases of about $100 for the past few years, and his water bill has been climbing as well. Motta says he probably pays over $40 in water bills already on a monthly basis. He just shook his head when asked if or how a higher cost of water would impact his bottom line.

“No idea,” he said. “I really don’t know. It’s just one more ripple in a big splash. It’s getting to the point that it’s just a part of life.”

Kate Cimini is a multimedia journalist for The Californian. This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...