October 31, 2012
The line between the Monterey Peninsula and the Salinas Valley hardened considerably Monday night, when the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency board shot down the agency's own high-profile water recycling project.
The agenda item was unassuming enough: Approve an updated budget for the recycled water project, also known as groundwater replenishment. The agency had secured about $433,000—from a federal loan, a state grant and a Monterey Peninsula Water Management District match—to cover the next stage of environmental planning, through March.
Five board members voted in favor of the budget, four voted against it and one (County Supervisor Lou Calcagno) recused himself. But a population-based weighting system gave Salinas City Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa's "no" vote disproportionate sway, making the weighted vote 10-10. The tie meant the motion failed. With its budget rejected, the water recycling project that's been a year in the works was killed.
Here's the issue: Growers in the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin say the recycled water project would violate their water rights. “Suddenly we wake up and we’re being told there’s a chance the Peninsula’s going to be taking our water,” Ocean Mist VP Dale Huss says.
Growers are responsible for paying bonds on the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project and the Salinas Valley Reclamation Project, which deliver recycled water (cleaned flow from the toilets and showers of surrounding urban areas) to irrigation systems on farms.
Growers were promised up to 19,500 acre-feet of that recycled water supply, which is intended to lower the volume they pump from wells, thereby helping raise the water table and solve the problem of seawater intrusion in the North Salinas Valley. Ocean Mist growers farm about 40 to 50 percent of that land, along with Dole, Scattini & Sons and others.
Huss worries if some of those 19,500 acre-feet are drawn off by municipal users, growers will get stuck with higher interest rates as they pay off the bonds. But he says it’s not so much about money as principle: “The issue is our rights to 19,500 acre feet.”
It’s also an issue about peeling back the so-called lettuce curtain between the Valley and the Peninsula. Huss says growers should’ve been looped into the project earlier. “This came like a missile from outer space, and we just had to get out in front and shoot her down,” he says.
So the four MRWPCA board members representing areas with a powerful ag lobby—Salinas Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa, Marina Coast Water District Director Ken Nishi, Castroville Community Services District President Ron Stefani and Moss Landing County Sanitation District Chris Orman—opposed the recycled water project budget.
The vote antagonized the five MRWPCA board members representing the desperate-for-water Monterey Peninsula: Monterey Councilwoman Libby Downey, Sand City Mayor Dave Pendergrass, Seaside Mayor Felix Bachofner, Del Rey Oaks Councilman Dennis Allion and Pacific Grove Mayor Carmelita Garcia.
Downey didn't hide her disgust with De La Rosa's vote. "If this board is going to be controlled by Salinas and by weighted votes, does the Peninsula have to stay in this organization? Could they pull out and take their effluent with them?” she asked.
Pendergrass piled on: “This [joint-powers authority] was supposed to be a cooperative agency, and I think damage has been done to half our members…We’re not going to let this drop. We need to find a way to put the fear of God into the Salinas Valley…You are not fair. We have saved the hides of the growers way back when by building the Reclamation Plant…Saved your hide, and not you won’t do that for us.”
Downey added: "My attitude toward Salinas has turned around completely. I used to work there; I liked it. I have lots of friends there. If Salinas wants to come on any of our boards in the future, I will fight tooth and nail to avoid letting them have a weighted voice. I think they have used it poorly.”
De La Rosa responded quietly: "We have a right to a weighted vote."
Calcagno says he recused himself from the tie vote because he's a property owner in the so-called "Purple-Line District," which receives water from the Salinas Valley Reclamation Project. "I'm not going to participate in any discussion on that issue," he says.
MRWPCA General Manager Keith Israel says the project might not be totally lost. Agency officials have three more meetings with the growers scheduled before the end of the year, he says, and may be able to strike a compromise.
Sara Rubin contributed to this report. The audio to the meeting is available on the MRWPCA website.