Playing Politics with the Carmel River

Humans aren’t the only fishermen hoping to see the Carmel River steelhead population recover.

As everyone knows, it’s absolutely imperative that we support the current operating agreements for Marina Coast Water District’s Regional Desal Plant regardless of how bad a deal they may be for the ratepayers of the Monterey Peninsula, and regardless of whether the project will actually result in any benefit to the Carmel River, BECAUSE IF WE DON’T THE STATE WATER RESOURCES CONTROL BOARD WILL CUT OFF OUR WATER AND BRING OUR ECONOMY TO ITS KNEES!

Funny … wasn’t that the same argument we heard back in 1995 when we were being asked to approve an environmentally disastrous dam that would actually have made rationing worse in times of prolonged drought? How did Cal-Am’s illegal diversions become a club to attempt to beat the ratepayers of the Monterey Peninsula into submission with every time someone wants to rip them off with a bad water deal? Let’s review the history …

Back in 1973, Cal-Am asked the PUC for permission to increase their pumping in Carmel Valley, from a rate of about 4,500 acre-feet per year, to 6,000 acre-feet per year. The PUC refused. After reviewing the available evidence, they found that 4,500 acre-feet per year of pumping was as much as the aquifer could sustain.

This wasn’t the answer that subdividers or the political leadership of the Monterey Peninsula wanted. They needed more water, and pumping it out of Carmel Valley was the easiest and cheapest way to get it. They needed help and, less than a year later, the State Department of Water Resources came riding to the rescue. Water Resources released a scientifically dubious report contradicting the PUC’s finding and estimating that a whopping 15,000 acre-feet of water per year could be sustainably pumped from Carmel Valley. The PUC quickly capitulated and granted Cal-Am permission to pump more than 11,000 acre-feet per year.

Carmel Valley residents, fishermen and environmentalists vigorously disputed the conclusions of the Water Resources report. They opposed increased pumping on the grounds that it would dewater the river, killing steelhead, and lower the water table, killing riparian vegetation. They were ignored.

Pumping proponents argued that the Carmel Valley Aquifer was separate from the river and its underflow. Just as in the recent case of September Ranch, geologic experts were trotted out to theorize about impermeable geologic features forming barriers between the river and aquifer.

But when large-scale pumping actually began, the river, embarrassingly for Cal-Am, started running dry right next to the pumps. This wasn’t just an environmental problem, it was also a legal problem. It demonstrated that Cal-Am was capturing river water – water they did not have a legal right to divert.

In 1987, the Carmel Valley Steelhead Association filed a formal complaint over the illegal diversions with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The Steelhead Association was soon joined in the complaint by the Carmel Valley Residents Water Committee, the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The complaint languished. The SWRCB took no action. They allowed the illegal diversions to continue unhindered for eight long years.

Then, in 1995, the powers that be on the Monterey Peninsula wanted the people to approve an expensive new dam. A dam that would provide water for lots of new development, but still run dry during extended droughts – leaving residents facing worse and longer rationing than would have occurred with no project at all. Just as in 1973, the developers needed some help and, just as before, the state was there to provide it.

Only a few months before the election, the SWRCB suddenly issued a ruling on the moldering Steelhead Association complaint. Order 95-10 found that all but 1,137 acre-feet per year of Cal-Am’s diversions were, in fact, illegal and would have to stop. But Order 95-10 was issued simultaneously with Decision 1632, granting the right to divert 24,000 acre-feet to storage behind the proposed dam. This would allow Cal-Am to legalize their diversions – BUT ONLY IF THE VOTERS APPROVED THE DAM!

The political leadership of the Peninsula was quick to explain that this meant that the Peninsula’s water supply would be cut off unless the dam was approved. But the voters wisely refused to support a bad project and voted the dam down. And the SWRCB did next to nothing to enforce Order 95-10 FOR THE NEXT FOURTEEN YEARS.

Then, in 2009, when a rag-tag coalition of agencies, public officials, consultants, and (apparently) at least one public official who was also a consultant, needed help in getting Peninsula leaders on board with an extremely questionable deal to operate a Regional Desal Plant, the SWRCB, like Rip Van Winkle, arose from its long slumber and issued a Cease and Desist Order declaring that this time the Peninsula would absolutely, positively have to give up its illegal diversions by December 31, 2016. And this threat of impending doom is why, of course, we must accept any water deal offered to us without question.

And the deal is truly bad. Under the current operating agreements the Marina Coast Water District will build an astronomically expensive desal plant, with Peninsula ratepayers paying not only the high cost of the desalinated water actually delivered to them, but also nearly the entire cost of the water delivered to Marina Coast’s customers – leaving Marina Coast no real incentive to prevent costs from spiraling even further out of control. Peninsula ratepayers will have no say in how the plant is operated and no way to question costs (which now, presumably, include the legal and public relations costs being run up as a result of the conflict of interest scandal). Worst of all, water rights problems may prevent the project from delivering the full amount of water needed to offset the illegal diversions.

Given these problems, it isn’t surprising that the project was carefully structured to avoid giving the Peninsula ratepayers an opportunity to vote on it. After all, they called the SWRCB’s bluff in 1995 didn’t they? And the fact that they voted down a bad dam proposal 16 years ago is proof they won’t ever support any water project, isn’t it? Not that they’ve been given a chance to vote on a project since.

It also explains why the Monterey Peninsula mayors, having caved in to the pressure and supported the bad operating agreements, are now so desperate to stifle any discussion of the project. And it clearly explains why Marina Coast Water District is preparing, in spite of their ongoing carnival of incompetence, to fight to the finish to maintain the operating agreements as they stand.

If the last 23 years have taught us anything, it’s that the SWRCB and other government agencies can’t be counted on to look after the interests of the river or the ratepayers. If we want a healthy river and a sensible water production and delivery system, a lot more of us than ever before are going to have to start working for those goals. There is no other way.

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2 Responses to Playing Politics with the Carmel River

  1. Great explanation of shenanigans of obscure agencies. Makes me wonder what’s up elsewhere. Quick question: any way to link the developers to the pols via contributions?

  2. Chris says:

    Yes, thanks so much, XT, for helping steer us through these murky waters.

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