Water Politics in California
California is getting warmer and drier, and this is placing unprecedented strain on the state’s intricate water system, threatening basic drinking water and mass agricultural production. But as we face a water crisis that promises to make scarce the clean and reliable water that families around the state depend on, what is California doing about it? Mostly playing politics.
One of the best ways California can deal with its water problems is by building ocean desalination plants, but our state’s ability to produce water through desalination (tapping the unlimited waters of the Pacific Ocean by stripping away its salt) has been hampered by coastal politics.
California American Water (Cal Am), a private for-profit water corporation, recently withdrew its application for a permit to build the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply desalination project in Marina after years of battling it out with cities and local activist groups. The desalination facility would remove salt from seawater and make it drinkable. It would situate wells beneath the beach to draw in ocean water that will be pumped to a state-of-the-art desalination facility located inland.
Proposed Desalination Plant in Salinas Valley
The latest desalination project backed by a Canada-based utility service company, Liberty Utilities, is facing increased opposition. The desalination plant will tap up to 40,000 acre-feet of brackish water from a series of wells at the mouth of the Salinas Valley. Through extraction and desalination, the plant will produce sufficient clean water to solve the county’s seawater intrusion issues caused by aquifer over-pumping. The plant is projected to produce up to 32,000 acre-feet of drinking water per year at a cost of about $1,000 to $1,500 per acre-foot for Salinas, Castroville, and Marina, and perhaps even eventually the Monterey Peninsula.
The proposed desal plant will be located far enough away from the ocean to avoid Coastal Commission oversight and will also employ “zero discharge” technology aimed at preventing any ocean discharge of brine extracted from the brackish water during the treatment process and avoid state Ocean Plan jurisdiction.
Though Monterey County has an ordinance that says that any new desalination plants can’t be privately owned, Liberty Utilities seems to have found a way. According to their representative, the county is considering an amendment to the public ownership ordinance, clarifying the need for desal expertise. County officials previously announced they don’t intend to enforce the public ownership requirement on Cal Am’s desal project, citing the state Public Utilities Commission’s declaration that its oversight authority exceeds the county’s. So, there’s hope that this project can go forward.
Concern From Environmental Activists
Any mention of changing the county code to accommodate private ownership sparked calls from environmental activists to maintain the public ownership requirement. Most people opposing the private ownership of the desalination project believe that those advocating for it to be publicly owned are doing so because they have ulterior motives, and the real reason is that, politically, they can completely control the water supply and how it’s used. They argue that if you can control the water, you can control development and many regional economic aspects, and the Salinas desal project is just another step in that direction.
While this may sound improbable, their concerns aren’t unfounded. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District was created in the 1970s as a means to give control of development in the cities on the peninsula served by Cal Am to a regional authority, which ended up choking the water supply. Another concern is the cost of water from desal plants. With water costing $1,000 to $1,500 per acre-foot, water bills are going to go way up.
As drought conditions worsen, California’s water issues aren’t likely to go away soon, and we’re going to need to come up with long-term solutions. Whether California goes ahead with the Salinas desalination project or pursues other alternatives like the Pure Water Monterey Expansion Project, it’s going to cost the end user a pretty penny. Water bills are going to skyrocket to pay for these kinds of projects.
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