By Jeff Davi, Special to CalMatters

Jeff Davi is a former California Real Estate Commissioner and Realtor who lives in Carmel. Jeff@JeffDavi.com.

John F Kennedy, speaking in 1962, said: “If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.”

And today, we are there. The Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, which will be before the California Coastal Commission for its final permit on Sept. 17, meets Kennedy’s criteria. This plant will provide a sustainable long-term water supply for our community which can replace over-pumping from the endangered Carmel River. For the sake of our environment, our economy and our water supply, the Coastal Commission needs to allow the project to move forward.

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Opponents of the desalination plant, proposed by California American Water (CalAm), have criticized it on the grounds of equity, saying that it disproportionately benefits the residents of the Peninsula. This is far from being true. One of the main issues of economic inequity in our county, and across the state, is a lack of access to affordable housing. The problem is particularly acute on the Peninsula where the lower wage workers who make the economy run cannot afford the cost of housing near their places of employment. 

Over the past decade, this problem has been compounded by a moratorium on new water connections that will remain until we cease over pumping from the Carmel River. The city of Monterey projects a need for 1,700 additional housing units by 2030, but those units will not be built unless there is a sustainable water source for them to draw on. 

In addition to housing for workers, the economy of Monterey County is dependent on a thriving tourism and hospitality industry which has been limited by these same water restrictions. Once we move past the COVID-19 downturn, tourists will return to now empty hotels, but without a sustainable water source the tourism revenue our cities depend on will be jeopardized.

Between increased opportunity for affordable housing, the benefit of tourism, and work to build and operate the plant, the Monterey Peninsula Water Project will generate about $260 million in new economic output for the region along with nearly 1,800 jobs, according to a study by Economic & Planning Systems Inc. for CanAm. In the current economic climate, we need to be doing everything we can to set our community up for a strong recovery. Investing in a desalination plant now will set us up for decades of economic stability.

Finally, it is worth considering the argument that opponents of the desalination plant have made about an alternative source of sustainable water for the Monterey Peninsula. Some have contended that an expansion of the Pure Water Monterey recycled water program could replace diversions from the Carmel River without requiring the amount of capital investment the desalination plant would. However, there are substantial issues with this approach. 

First, the current Pure Water Monterey system regularly fails to produce the amount of water it promised to, so there is no reason to suspect an expanded version would be able to deliver more consistently. Second, even if there was a successful expansion, Pure Water Monterey would only provide enough water to maintain the status quo on the Peninsula when there is room for improvement people are asking for. Finally, during a drought Pure Water Monterey could fail to meet the water needs of the Peninsula forcing us to tap the Carmel River once again. Settling for just expanding Pure Water Monterey severely risks undermining the initial environmental justification for finding a new water supply and locks the Peninsula into a stagnant economy.

The California Coastal Commission has a chance to do right by the people of Monterey County and our environment by approving the desalination plant. They must consider the long term economic and environmental costs of the decision they are making and choose the future by supporting a sustainable, affordable and environmentally friendly water supply.

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Another view: Desal plant on Monterey Peninsula is not the best option

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