As Tuesday’s Regional Water Forum before the Monterey County Board of Supervisors nears and in the third year of the current California drought, the challenge of sustainable, permanent water for Monterey County remains daunting. Recent developments offer an opportunity to ground-truth various perspectives and provide new incentive to bring everyone to the table.
For the short-term, I am pleased to have helped get specific drought items in the state budget for Monterey County water agencies:
- $6.8 million in valve replacement projects for the Nacimiento and San Antonio Dams, which will allow for accessing water at lower levels in those reservoirs in the driest of times.
- $4.8 million for an additional well for Pure Water Monterey, which will allow for more water to be injected and pulled out from that project.
Since then, the federal budget allocated $20 million more for Pure Water Monterey. In addition, a competitive state grant program to support water systems that need upgrades for items such as dam safety, more water recycling, sustainable groundwater management and other drought and water resilience efforts was funded with billions of dollars at the end of legislative session. It could provide additional funds to local water systems through competitive grant processes.
As good of news as these allocations are – long-term water security for Monterey County is more complicated and will cost much more:
- The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which governs various basins in Monterey County, particularly in the Salinas Valley, will require sustainable groundwater basins by 2040, and in some cases require additional water efficiency and/or supply projects. The current drought and the need for dam repairs already threatens water supply from South County reservoirs to the Salinas Valley.
- Sea water intrusion continues to challenge the coastal end of the Salinas River watershed.
- Water infrastructure, particularly the Nacimiento and San Antonio Dams and Reservoirs require major upgrades, which stretch the ability of ratepayers to support financially.
- Building new affordable housing and preserving tourism and farming depends on reliable water.
- The State Water Board recently indicated they do not think the water developed thus far gives them enough confidence to remove the 1995 order that limits the amount of water that can be taken from the Carmel River – the historic water source for the Monterey Peninsula.
- Smaller communities such as San Lucas face challenges in guaranteeing good clean drinking water to their residents.
- The Cal Am application for a desal plant before the California Coastal Commission has a steep challenge ahead.
- The city of Marina has been left out and disadvantaged by the Cal Am desal project.
- Disagreements over the desal project have caused some desal advocates to slow down a genuine improvement in water supply that can be provided by the Monterey One recycling project.
- The fate of the Public Water vote of a few years ago is caught in a long legal process but is the backdrop for many of these discussions.
These challenges present policy decisions that have flummoxed area officials for decades but can’t wait any longer. This drought might go on a few years – and with the strong changes in our climate, this is a picture of droughts to come. Local residents and businesses hang in the
balance, especially the construction of much-needed affordable housing projects.
A framework for a solution probably lies with the following:
- The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act process in the Salinas Valley must result in long-term sustainability.
- The Monterey One recycling project should build out as much as is feasible and proponents of other projects should step aside and let this happen.
- A smaller desal project should be considered – if the plant is in public ownership and Marina’s concerns are addressed. It would be hard to start a new project all over if Cal Am’s project fails at the Coastal Commission, so this should be considered in the short term.
- I am willing to approach the State Water Board and ask that they meet with local officials and have a subsequent workshop to provide a road map to lifting the state order – as well as bringing their efforts to the communities needing clean, safe drinking water.
- If local stakeholders can unite around these goals, it makes a stronger case for federal, state, and local officials to seek grant funding with ratepayer partnerships to make this happen.
The legal process between Cal Am and public water advocates will still take a few years to resolve and no short-term action appears able to resolve that conflict. The State Water Board has indicated current efforts will not lead to a lifting of the state order on the Carmel River.
Opposition to the Cal Am desal plant may well lead to that proposal dying if it is pursued in the current form.
That means that working together toward a larger framework is the only way out. It also means that not everyone might get 100% of what they want, but each stakeholder can get much of what they need. It’s time to lay down arms and link together to work toward a solution. There’s too much at stake to hold out for perfection – and various stakeholders have been locked in conflict for too long. I am ready to work together with everyone toward long-term solutions, I ask others to be ready as well. The clock is ticking.
John Laird is the California state senator for District 17, which encompasses the Central Coast, including the coastal Monterey Bay area. He will be one of the speakers at Tuesday’s Regional Water Forum, which starts at 1:30 p.m. at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting.