Unlike many communities in California, the Monterey Peninsula does not import water from the Sacramento Delta or Colorado River. Instead, in its semi-arid climate, the peninsula community is completely dependent on local rainfall for its water supply. The Carmel River has served as the main source for the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply since the first dam was built on the river in the late 1890s. Over 90% of the potable water supplied within the Seaside basin is delivered by California American Water (Cal-Am), a private company. Cal-Am operates several water distribution systems in the area, some of which are interconnected. The main system serves the Carmel Valley, Monterey Peninsula and coastal subareas of the Seaside basin. Presently, water is obtained from approximately 17 wells along the Carmel River and eight wells in the Seaside coastal subareas. The Carmel Valley wells extract groundwater from the Carmel Valley alluvium and operate year-round. Wells in the Seaside coastal subareas are used primarily in late spring, summer and fall- the dry season in California.
Cal-Am traditionally supplied its customers with water from wells located near the river in the Carmel Valley Aquifer. For a long time the water supplied was considered to be groundwater, which is not subject to State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) jurisdiction. However, in 1995, the SWRCB ruled that California American Water’s wells were diverting from the underflow of the Carmel River, thus making the diversion subject to SWRCB jurisdiction. Order 95-10 was issued, which held that California American Water had no valid permits for nearly 70 percent of the community’s water supply. Cal-Am went to court and nothing changed for a while.
Finally, in October of 2009 the SWRCB issued a Cease and Desist Order, CDO, for Cal-Am. The Order required Cal-Am to develop water supply sources in places other than the Carmel River. Cal-Am has not developed a substitute supply to date. The lack of a replacement supply was cited by the SWRCB as the reason the CDO was imposed. Initially, the order was put aside while the case was adjudicating, but has been reinstated by the court.
Though the CDO is directed against Cal-Am, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, MPWMD has been actively involved in the CDO because 95% of the people who live within MPWMD boundaries are Cal-Am customers. The MPWMD Board of Directors has consistently opposed the CDO due to technical flaws and the potential for adverse health and safety impacts to the community. MPWMD staff provided expert testimony in hearings on the draft CDO in Sacramento in 2008, and offered comments on earlier versions. When the final CDO was approved by the SWRCB in October 2009, MPWMD and Cal-Am filed suit jointly.
The MPWMD was created the California Legislature in 1977, and ratified by the voters of the Monterey Peninsula area in 1978. The District was formed in response to the drought of 1976-1977. The MPWMD Law provides authority for integrated management of the waters of the Carmel River and Seaside groundwater basin. The District’s integrated management responsibilities include control over water supply and demand, a combination which calls on the District to act both as a planning agency and a regulatory body, not as an advocate for unsustainable water use. In response to the SWRCB Order groundwater extraction near the coast increased markedly beginning in 1995, resulting in declining water levels and depletion of groundwater. After a series of studies in the early part of this decade it was estimated that the water being pumped from the groundwater basin was at approximately twice the sustainable yield of the Seaside basin. The Monterrey Peninsula was mining water at an alarming rate seemingly encouraged by the MPWMD
The state has ordered Cal Am to dramatically reduce its pumping of the Carmel River by 70 percent by 2016. Water conservation has been very effective in the region, but rationing may have to occur as the SWRCB steps down the water the Cal-Am may pump each year.
The Coastal Water Project is Cal-Am’s proposed solution to the Monterey Peninsula’s water supply shortage. The project consists of a seawater desalination plant and aquifer storage and recovery facilities. The project will replace water pumped from the Carmel River. Seawater desalination is used in 120 countries around the world for drinking water. As the technology has improved and costs have lessened, costal communities’ car looking to increase water supply from over-stressed rivers and aquifers.
Desalination is accomplished through a Reverse Osmosis (RO) process in which seawater is sent through highly pressurized, fine membrane filters that remove salt and other contaminants. What’s left is pure H20, which is why many bottled water companies use RO filters to produce their product. The project is based upon the recommendation by an independent team of environmental consultants selected by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) of how to best meet the community’s water supply needs. After a series of public hearings and workshops, the Coastal Water Project was suggested as the best alternative to a long-debated new dam and reservoir on the Carmel River.
Cal-Am recently completed a 12-month study, which included operation of a pilot desalination plant at the Moss Landing Power Plant. The pilot plant functioned as a mini version of a seawater desalination plant, drawing 22,000 gallons of ocean water per day from the power plant’s cooling systems and testing a variety of membrane and treatment technologies to help refine design of a full-scale project. Desalinated water produced by the pilot plant was tested for more than 100 compounds in a water quality study that will be submitted to the Department of Public Health as part of the project permitting process. The data collected in this study will be valuable to the ultimate project, regardless of its location. It is estimated that the construction of the desalination plant will cost between $300 and $500 million which will be paid for by a doubling (or tripling) of water rates in the area.