Sand mining near the site of the proposed desal project
An insider at the Marina Coast Water District admitted today that they never expected to be taken seriously when they offered to build a massive desalination plant for the Monterey Peninsula and that they lack the experience to oversee construction of a 500 million dollar project.
“We were only joking,” said the official, who met with us wearing a large chicken costume to conceal his identity; “We never expected it to go this far. I guess things just spiraled out of control.
“We were sitting around drinking beer at Mortimer’s and one of the guys said; ‘Hey, why don’t we offer to build a desal plant and solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water problems?’ ‘That’s crazy,’ I told him, after we stopped laughing; ‘The Monterey Peninsula’s right on the ocean too. Desalting water out here in Marina, then pumping it all the way down to the Peninsula would make the water far too expensive. Transportation costs alone could run as high as $2,600 per acre-foot – more than the total cost of most desalinated water and more than Cal-Am customers are currently paying for water. No one would ever agree to that.’
“But the more we talked about it, the funnier the idea of making the offer started to seem and the next thing we knew he was running around telling everyone we were prepared to build the plant.
“We expected to be laughed out of the room. I mean, what qualifications do we have to take on a project running into the hundreds of millions of dollars? And we’re the Marina Coast Water District, for crying out loud. We aren’t answerable to the water users on the Monterey Peninsula in any way.
“We couldn’t believe it when Cal-Am suddenly started throwing its weight behind us. Guess maybe we should have realized that a small, easily manipulated local agency outside the control of the ratepayers was exactly what Cal-Am was looking for.
“We knew we’d have to do something to get ourselves off the hook and do it fast, so we announced we’d be pumping a mixture of seawater and Salinas Valley groundwater for the plant. Since Salinas Valley groundwater can’t be transported out of the basin, we figured that would kill the plan – a real stroke of genius. But no one seemed to care that the ratepayers would have to ration if our wells didn’t end up drawing enough seawater.
“Next, without offering any explanation, we inflated the price of the plant to the point where it would be the most expensive desal plant of its kind in the world – by far. The water from it would be more than twice as expensive as it should be – and that’s not even counting the cost of pumping it to the Peninsula. But still no one blinked.
“In desperation, we announced that we’d be charging Cal-Am’s ratepayers nearly all the cost of desalting even the water we would keep for ourselves – and that all expenses would be passed directly through to water bills without any PUC review for reasonableness and without any say for ratepayers in how the plant is built or run.
“We even proposed to have Cal-Am customers go right on paying even when water couldn’t be delivered to them – due to our pumps drawing too much Salinas Valley groundwater. We figured there was no chance they’d agree to pay for water they might not even get. We figured a deal this one-sided would never fly with the PUC.
“We were wrong. Most of the elected officials on the Monterey Peninsula actually begged the PUC to approve the project ‘as is’ and anyone who raised even the slightest question about the proposal was denounced as a no-growther trying to sabotage any solution to the Peninsula’s water problems.
“At the last minute a few Peninsula politicians began to have misgivings, but even then all they could muster was a lame request by the mayors to have a single, nonvoting, seat on an advisory committee. This, when their constituents were about to be locked into paying any and all expenses associated with a project that could run to more than half a billion dollars! Could they possibly have made their request any weaker?
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was keeping a straight face while denouncing that meaningless request as totally unreasonable and threatening to drop the project if the PUC required it. But look at it from our point of view. We had to find some way of getting out of the hole we’d dug ourselves into.
“And the PUC turned the mayors down! They wouldn’t even grant Cal-Am’s ratepayers an insulting nonvoting seat on a powerless committee! That’s when we knew our situation was hopeless.
“And no sooner did the PUC approve the project, than the press, which had started out praising our plans, turned on us and began to point out how outrageously unfair the whole thing is. Gee, you think?
“Now the Herald is dismissing us as nothing more than a front for Cal-Am. We’re not a front. We’re hostages – and we’re in this thing way over our heads. One of our board members even thought he could get away with resigning and leaving us holding the bag. Nice try, but we’re all in this together now and no one is going anywhere. We need an exit strategy!”