Desalination project wins approval despite equity concerns

In a decision that sheds a harsh light on the state’s commitment to environmental justice amid rising drought fears, the California Coastal Commission has granted conditional approval to a controversial desalination project in Monterey Bay, affecting even the commission’s own employees said, would unfairly burden a historically underserved community.

“This is a really, really difficult decision,” commission chairman Donne Brownsey said during a heated 13-hour hearing on Thursday. “Like most commissioners up here, I struggled with that. But I’ve read everything… I’ve spoken to everyone… and I feel like this is the right place to land.”

California American Water, a utility owned by investors, has proposed more than $330 million to build Desalination project on a former sand mining area in Marina, a small town where a third of the community is low income and many speak little English. The plant would convert up to 6.4 million gallons of seawater into drinking water per day, which would then be piped to neighboring towns and businesses.

The proposal was witnessed by more than 350 speakers and was seen by many as the first major test of the Commission’s new power to consider potential harm to underserved communities in addition to environmental impacts. Commission officials explained the proposed proposal in a 157-page report “The main environmental justice concerns addressed by the Commission since it adopted an Environmental Justice Directive in 2019.”

The commission issued its decision in a chamber in Salinas packed with lawyers, local water officials, labor groups, tribal leaders and residents from across the region. Many noted the presence of Wade Crowfoot, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior natural resources commissioner, who spent his entire day at the hearing, delivering opening remarks emphasizing the need to diversify California’s water supply.

In the midst of this Amid repeated calls from the Newsom administration to speed up desalination, the commissioners examined water demand forecasts, local groundwater impacts and other water supply concerns. The core of the debate, however, centered on whether it was acceptable to continue sacrificing some communities but not others, under the burden of industrialization.

Marina, with a population of more than 22,000, already bears the brunt of a regional landfill and sewage treatment plant, as well as a sand mine that has dredged the coast for more than a century. Many speakers also questioned the proposal’s economics, condemning reports that Cal Am’s treated seawater would cost nearly $8,000 per acre-foot — a staggeringly high price that could weigh on taxpayers across the Monterey Peninsula.

The commissioners, who voted 8 to 2, acknowledged these concerns and sought to remedy the situation by demanding strict conditions – including guaranteed protection for low-income taxpayers, intensive monitoring for potential groundwater damage and comprehensive restoration of valuable dune habitat. They also ordered Cal Am to give Marina $3 million and a full-time employee for 10 years to develop more community amenities.

However, Marina residents said it felt like a slap in the face.

“Essentially they’re saying environmental justice can be negotiated for $3 million,” said Kathy Yaeko Biala, who has spent many late hours campaigning for her community. “It becomes money and not a principle to be upheld.”

Caryl Hart, one of the two commissioners who voted against the project, echoed this sentiment, saying Thursday’s vote was a failure of the values ​​the commission espoused.

“You don’t buy environmental justice,” she said. “I just don’t understand why we’re plowing forward in this way… I believe this is a violation of our Environmental Justice Policy.”

Image of crowded meeting room with people holding NO DESAL signs

In a crowded meeting room in Salinas, hundreds of people expressed support and opposition for a controversial desalination project proposed by California American Water.

(Rosanna Xia/Los Angeles Times)

Water policy is seldom easy, but it’s particularly tense along Monterey Bay: Isolated from state and federal aqueducts, the region has limited water options. Some communities like Marina tap their own groundwater, but most rely on Cal Am to provide it pumped the Carmel River for decades.

But the river, which once spawned 10,000 steelhead trout, has suffered from the region’s water demands. Cal Am was pumping more than three times its legal limit, and by 1995 the State Water Resources Control Board had ordered an end to the overdraft — a deadline that was extended to December 2021.

A number of alternative utility projects have been proposed over the years, including a new dam and desalination plant at Moss Landing power station. Voters rejected the dam’s funding plan, and environmentalists opposed any marine life that could be harmed by sucking water straight from the ocean.

So Cal Am tried the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project again: a smaller desalination plant that would use an inclined well technique that doesn’t draw water from the open ocean. They chose a new location – a sand mine in Marina that recently closed.

This scaled-down project relies on a new public recycled water project to fill the demand gap. Amid increasing controversy over the past two years, the Company also agreed to build the project in phases and further reduce the total area – from six inclined shafts to four.

“We used the best science and technology available. We thoroughly reviewed everything and answered every objection we heard – and we took what we heard and made changes to the project to improve it,” said Kevin Tilden, company president.

Image of the sand mine in Marina before its closure in 2020.

A desalination project would be located on the Marina shore where a sand mine operated.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Cal Am also offered to sell some of the desalinated water to Marina (which the community said added insult to injury), and it worked out an agreement to provide water at a reduced price to Castroville, a small community of farm workers on the outskirts to face collapse.

“The median household income here is $35,000, and I’m not sure that takes into account the fact that there are typically two families crammed into one home,” said Eric Tynan, general manager of Castroville’s Community Services District, who is with In clear panic his voice stated that his community had just lost their best well to seawater intrusion.

Critics say Castroville has been played – a false pitting of one underserved community against another. That’s what happens when a big water company controls so many pieces on the chessboard, said Melodie Chrislock, who is leading a public effort to buy up Cal Am to stem exorbitant water costs.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest that the average taxpayer will pay at least $564 more per year to fund the desalination project. However, the ultimate cost burden — and whether the water is even needed — remains unknown until a final decision by the California Public Utilities Commission next year.

“There’s something going on here politically that really stinks,” said Chrislock, a longtime Carmel resident, who said it was premature to let the Coastal Commission approve the project before the CPUC’s decision.

Chrislock, along with many others, on Thursday touted the new recycled water project, Pure Water Monterey, as a more equitable and environmentally responsible way to meet the region’s water needs for at least the next three decades. Expanding this other project – a joint effort by local public authorities – would also be much cheaper.

Cal Am declined to provide current estimates, but public water officials calculated that the desalinated water could cost at least $7,900 per acre-foot, or per 325,851 gallons. (Compare that with the $1,700-per-acre-foot cost of the Doheny public desalination project that the Coastal Commission approved last month. Even Huntington Beach’s controversial Poseidon Water proposal, which the commission unanimously rejected in May, would have cost less than half, at $3,000 per acre-foot.)

Recent filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission also show that Cal Am has already incurred a total of $206 million in costs related to the project.

State Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), who represents all impacted communities and opposes the project, noted that “As an investor-led utility, Cal Am owes allegiance to its investors: it needs to grow, it has to make money, it has to be profitable.”

Some commissioners, concerned about these unanswered cost questions, made it clear that without the CPUC’s final approval that the water is actually needed, the project could not be tackled.

Back in Marina late Thursday, residents were visibly exhausted from trying to keep up with Cal Am’s more sophisticated lobbying efforts.

“I suffer,” said Bruce Delgado, Marina’s longtime mayor, whose voice cracked with emotion as he spoke of all the families, teachers and students who spent another day pleading their case before those in power.

Delgado said the city is considering its next options. Marina has already sued Cal Am, and local leaders recently floated the idea of ​​tapping their own water supply area to Castroville. Their two communities, both of which are struggling, should never have been played off against one another, he said.

For Monica Tran Kim, who juggles four jobs to make ends meet, attending this week’s meeting meant sacrificing more than 12 hours of work. But she felt a strong commitment to serving the city’s large refugee community.

Kim, whose parents fled Vietnam and made a new life fishing off Marina’s open shores, said many were reluctant to speak out against a company as politically powerful as Cal Am. She often thinks of the hard-working families who have been displaced from Pacific Grove and other more affluent nearby towns in the past.

“First it was land, now it was water,” she said. “It’s a historical repetition of people in power taking something valuable from a community they don’t see as deserved — from a community that is vulnerable.” Desalination project wins approval despite equity concerns

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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