December 7, 2012
Last time local water leaders tried to penetrate the Lettuce Curtain known to divide Monterey Peninsula and Salinas Valley interests, they hired former Monterey County Water Resources Agency director Steve Collins to diffuse tensions. That didn't go as planned (Collins has since resigned and faces felony charges in relation to alleged conflicts of interest).
A group of local water decision-makers, pulled from various boards and groups, has been meeting to try and resolve a water rights debate that threatens to stall one of the three legs of California American Water's proposed three-legged water supply proposal for the Peninsula: recycled water, or groundwater replenishment.
In October, a divided Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency board voted down a proposal to move forward with the next stages of feasibility planning for a 3,900-acre-feet-a-year groundwater replenishment project, which would allow Cal Am to shrink the originally propose desal plant.
Since then, a group of PCA, Monterey County Water Resources Agency and Marina Coast Water District board members, along with city of Salinas representatives and agriculture reps have been gathering over coffee and mixed nuts to try and resolve the water rights debate that threatens to sink this project before plans even get drawn out.
But there's still no agreed-upon language resolving the water rights dispute, and without the PCA board's blessing, the groundwater replenishment portion of the project can't move forward.
At issue: 19,500 acre-feet of water North Salinas Valley growers lay claim to. They who voted to tax themselves to pay for the cost of the recycled water plant in North Marina, which delivers purified sewage water to their irrigation systems, in an effort to alleviate pressure on the water table and halt seawater intrusion.
But after almost two months of meetings, it's not clear they're any nearer to a resolution.
"Ag is not standing in your way," said MCWRA board member and grower Mike Scattini at a committee meeting Thursday. "We're more than willing to lend some of that 19,500."
There hasn't actually been 19,500 acre-feet of water since the recycled water plant went online in 1998. The plant's only at 62-percent capacity, due partly to conservation measures upstream where residents of Peninsula cities, Moss Landing and Castroville take shorter showers or flush fewer toilets, water officials say.
Growers claim they're ahead of Peninsula cities in line for the first 19,500 acre-feet of water, but since growers aren't using all the water today, some PCA board members see no reason they can't share what's really running, instead leaving the water rights dispute to a theoretical one. But Scattini disputed that point: "So you want us to take 19,5 that doesn't exist, and you take 4,000 that does exist."
Monterey Peninsula Water Management District General Manager David Stoldt told the committee Thursday that the water rights issue was never intended to be resolved before approving next steps on looking at Cal Am's proposal feasibility.
(The $443,000 in required funding for next steps in planning have already been secured from a federal loan, state grant, and MPWMD match.)
"All along we had contemplated we'd get to fourth quarter of 2014, and at that point we'd know if it's a go or no-go," Stoldt said. "Environmental review, water rights, cost; all those things would be known then."
There's no need to resolve the issue of water rights up front, he said. Planning is part of the expense that sometimes gets committed to a project that fails.
"Stranded costs are stranded costs. There'$32 million on the regional desal plant already," Stoldt added.
Salinas Valley Water Coalition director Nancy Isakson disagreed: "is it fair to their ratepayers to move forward, knowing at the very back end there might be a war? Shouldn't this be resolved first?"
PCA General Manager Keith Israel will present a water rights resolution proposal at the next PCA board meeting, Jan. 28.
If the board doesn't approve the financing for the next stages in the environmental study, the project won't move forward.