Thursday, December 23, 1999
Sit down. You may have thought you''d never be reading this, but the California-American Water Company is now willing to consider a solution to the Peninsula''s chronic water problems that does not include a new dam on the Carmel River.
That''s right. Cal-Am, the company that for years has said that a new dam is the only answer. The company that''s spent hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars studying (read: selling) the idea. The company that''s campaigned--however subtly--on behalf of dam-friendly candidates running for the board of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. The company whose billion-dollar parent outfit, New Jersey-based American Water Works, is legendary in the corporate world for its strong-arming of local communities.
Yep, the very same Cal-Am considered by many of its 100,000 customers to be among the most money-driven corporations going, now says it''s willing to consider other alternatives, say, a desalination plant, recharging the Seaside aquifer, or (more likely) some combination of solutions.
Assemblymember Fred Keeley got the scoop himself, after meeting with Cal-Am General Manager Judy Almond and other company honchos.
"In recent conversations with Cal-Am officials," Keeley says, "I believe that they are not necessarily committed to a dam, so much as they are committed to solving the water-supply problem. I think they are very open-minded about reaching the goal of providing water to the community."
Keeley, who wrote legislation requiring the state to come up with a "Plan B" for the proposed dam (which the Public Utilities Commission is currently working on), also says Cal-Am has become an active participant in that endeavor. "And I expect that they will become more so," Keeley says.
It''s a bombshell, all right. It''s a change of course that would be tough to overstate, particularly since a new dam, by Cal-Am''s own estimates, would cost $1.9 billion over its 90-year financing period and, in the eyes of some government regulators and many environmental advocates, would further harm the federally protected steelhead trout and red-legged frog.
Kris Lindstrom, a new water board member who ousted longtime incumbent Jim Hughes on a decidedly anti-dam platform last month, agrees that Cal-Am is no longer sticking by its guns on the dam issue. "I spoke with them, too," Lindstrom says, "and they said they''re open to any other alternatives. They still think the dam is the most cost-effective solution, but I think they''re very openminded now."
What''s more, says Lindstrom, the company seems to have adopted a more cooperative approach to dealing with the Peninsula''s water-management issues. "I find them very open. They''re helpful to me. We''re trying to establish an open dialogue. They see the writing on the wall."
The writing certainly has changed over the past few years: an anti-dam vote in 1995, Keeley''s Plan B bill, and a historic water board election in November, which swung the makeup from a 6-1 pro-dam majority to 4-3 anti-dam majority, led by newcomers Lindstrom, Molly Erickson, and Zan Henson.
Cal-Am officials, including Almond and the company''s San Diego-based president, Ted Jones Jr., did not respond to a request for an interview.
Bureaucratically speaking, a lot has to happen before the dam would officially be dead. Cal-Am would have to withdraw its request for a rate increase to pay for dam, or state officials would have to reject the request. The water board would have to surrender the permits it holds to build a new dam, or otherwise officially make them unavailable to Cal-Am. And, the state regulators would have to come up with a Plan B amenable to all concerned--and that''s a lot of people, government agencies, and environmental advocates.
Still, Cal-Am''s about-face--however driven it may have been by political reality more than the company''s own good will--is big news. Dam opponents have something to cheer about at the start of the new year.