Cal-Am Announces Coal-Based Water Source for Monterey Peninsula

April 1, 2017

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The Cemex site: Future location of a Coal-Fired water plant?

The Monterey Peninsula must act quickly to end its reliance on illegal water diversions from the Carmel River. Otherwise the State Water Resources Control Board, which has stood by doing nothing about the illegal diversions for more than 30 years, will likely issue a new set of empty threats and just might, eventually, order mandatory rationing – something we all know would destroy the local economy. After all, without plenty of water, how can our visitor-serving industries serve our visitors?

After more than a decade of planning, the desal plant the community had pinned its hopes on remains little more than an ever expanding library of expensive studies. Beset by problems with its unproven slant-well technology and a battle over water rights, it is unclear when, if ever, the plant might break ground, let alone produce water.

So it is welcome news that the creative minds at Cal-Am have identified yet another highly speculative, energy intensive, and ruinously expensive solution to the Peninsula’s water woes. The idea is to build a large coal gasification plant on the Cemex property north of Marina (alongside the proposed desal plant). Hydrogen produced by the gasification process would then be combined with oxygen and ignited in a combustion chamber to form water. Coal would be imported by rail from mines in the Midwest, helping to realize the President’s dream of putting coal miners back to work.

Cal-Am says they’re very excited about this new project and, given that they make their money through a guaranteed return on their investment in the water system, why wouldn’t they be? The more they spend, the more they earn. The fun only stops if the PUC decides the spending is no longer reasonable and necessary. And who knows what it would take to reach that theoretical limit?

After all, they’ve already found it reasonable and necessary to site the desal plant miles up the coast from where the water is needed, requiring millions in new infrastructure to transport the water back to the users. They’ve found it reasonable and necessary to place the wells where some of the water they’ll capture already belongs to the Salinas Valley, adding millions to the cost of running the plant (since it will have to desalinate far more water than Cal-Am’s ratepayers actually need). They’ve found projected costs that far exceed the costs of similar desal plants reasonable and necessary. They didn’t even have a problem with ceding their oversight responsibility to a water board elected by people entirely outside the Cal-Am service area – and with zero personal stake in keeping Cal-Am water rates under control.

And what’s the big deal about cost anyway? The rate structure carefully protects water hogs in the business community from the punitive rates applied to residential customers who stumble over the line into higher tiers.

The “conventional wisdom” may be that technical problems with producing sufficient water in this way are far too numerous to make it feasible. Naysayers may point to the massive air quality and global warming impacts. Bean counters may complain that the water would be more expensive drop for drop than HP Printer Ink. But you don’t know what you can accomplish until you try!

And even if Cal-Am never manages to solve every problem, as long as they spend plenty of the ratepayer’s money working on it, they’ll have done their job.

Cal-Am’s profits, let us never forget, are based on how much money they can get away with “investing” in the water system. The amount of water they actually produce and deliver is irrelevant.


Big Sur Highway Mayhem Map

March 18, 2017

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The Highway has been mostly closed for over a month now, but sooner or later it will be business as usual again.

There’s been concern expressed recently about the safety of Highway One through Big Sur. Not concern about the inherent danger of a narrow, twisting road perched on the side of a cliff, but concern about new dangers created by congestion and overcrowding.

As anyone who lives, works or spends time in Big Sur knows, the Highway has gotten very, very crowded over the past five years or so. Why has the number of visitors increased so drastically? Is it social media? Advertising? Shifting dynamics of domestic and international tourism? No one seems to know for sure.

What people do know is that they’re frustrated with the traffic and crowds.

Traffic now routinely comes to a standstill at hotspots like Pt. Lobos, Bixby Bridge and Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Tourists park cars blocking the lane. Pedestrians run through narrow gaps in traffic to reach popular parks and trails. “Whale jams” appear wherever feeding humpbacks draw a crowd. There are times when traffic is stop and go from the Big Sur Valley to Carmel and beyond.

Many have called for drastic measures to be taken in the name of safety (as well as in the name of resource protection – but that’s a topic for another day). Suggestions include imposing a toll, limiting entry and requiring reservations, banning roadside parking near popular attractions, banning large RVs, and even banning bicycles.

What there hasn’t been a lot of is actual data. Data capable of allowing us to separate the merely annoying from the actually dangerous.

Which is why I’ve created this map. Its purpose is to provide real information, based on Highway Patrol accident reports about what kind of accidents are happening, and where.

Obviously, it is not perfect. It is based on imperfect data and I have doubtless made some mistakes in getting it onto the map. The locations of individual accidents are approximate and the most recent are the least exact, as the Highway Patrol, beginning in August 2015, began using vague descriptions, rather than mile post markers, to locate accidents. It is also likely that the descriptions of what caused accidents are sometimes in error. Like my fire maps, this map is intended to give an informative overview, rather than precise boundaries or definitive information on specific incidents.

The map covers the 72 miles of Highway between the Carmel River and the Monterey County line, and the past three years (2014-2016). Marked on the map are the 356 accidents reported by the Highway Patrol during this time (104 in 2014, 136 in 2015, and 116 in 2016). These accidents resulted in injuries to 173 people (56 in 2014, 69 in 2015, and 48 in 2016), and 7 deaths (3 in 2014 and 2015, 1 in 2016).

Single-vehicle accidents caused by a failure to stay on the road were the most common (164 accidents), suggesting that the twisting nature of the road remains the greatest hazard, but the next most common cause of accidents (vehicles rear-ending slowing or stopped traffic) is clearly related to congestion. 61 accidents were caused in this way.

Other significant causes of accidents were drifting into the wrong lane (28 accidents), hitting objects in the road (24 accidents), unsafe passing (20 accidents), and left turns and U-turns into oncoming traffic (20 accidents each).

6 accidents involved pedestrians (5 in 2014 and 1 in 2015). 2 were pedestrians hit by backing vehicles in turnouts, 3 were pedestrians actually in the roadway, and 1 was the woman tragically killed at Julia Pfeiffer Burns when she was rolled over by her own car. Interestingly, none of the three pedestrians hit in the roadway were hit at the major trouble spots (like Pt. Lobos, Soberanes, Bixby and Julia Pfeiffer Burns) where it’s been suggested that Highway parking should be banned in the interest of pedestrian safety.

Bicycles were involved in just two collisions. The first, between Palo Colorado and Rocky Creek, was hit by a driver making an unsafe turn (the kind of accident that could befall a cyclist anywhere). The second, near Kirk Creek, was sideswiped by a car (exactly what the anti-bike crowd has long predicted would happen to cyclists in Big Sur!), but did not sustain any injury.

A few things I’ve noticed in looking at the map include:

A lot of people either drive too fast or don’t pay enough attention, or both.

The intersections of Sycamore Canyon and the Old Coast Rd. (at Molera) with the Highway are even more dangerous than I thought.

There are a lot fewer accidents than you might expect at Bixby Bridge (although there are plenty at the other congestion hot spots).

Accidents anywhere in the vicinity of Rocky Creek inevitably result in injury.

A large section of Highway, with Esalen at its center (from just south of JPB, nearly to Big Creek), is the safest stretch of road on the coast. Maybe all the serenity emanating from Esalen has an effect on drivers?

Please Note:

Blue pins are non-injury accidents.

Orange pins are injury accidents.

Black pins are fatal accidents.

Click through for details.

See what you can find…


Parks, Taxes & Fracking: Measures E, X, and Z Pass

November 10, 2016

While voters at the national level were rejecting the neoliberal consensus of the Democratic and Republican elites by hurling a human bomb into the White House, voters in Monterey County quietly banned fracking and voted to tax themselves to support parks and transportation projects.

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Garland Regional Park: The passage of Measure E ensures that popular parks, like Garland, will continue to be adequately funded.

Measure E

The Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District needed a 2/3 majority vote on Measure E to prevent an assessment on real property (amounting to about $25.00 per year on single family homes) from expiring. The Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association predictably opposed the Measure.

There was a time when the Taxpayers Association (formed in the 1960s to prevent a public takeover of the water system) carried enough clout that their opposition would likely have prevented the District from achieving the needed super majority. Not this time.

Peninsula residents overwhelmingly expressed their support for keeping the parks and wildlands managed by the District adequately funded and Measure E passed with a, more than comfortable, 71% of the vote.

Measure X

I’ve written before (in long and boring detail) about the difficulties of getting the 2/3 vote needed to pass a transportation sales tax measure and become a “self-help” county, but it looks like the Transportation Agency for Monterey County has finally succeeded (this was their fifth try) by a razor thin margin of 67.36%.

This result was made possible by getting the environmental community on board (mainly by including $20 million for a bike and pedestrian trail to be built on the former Ft. Ord), while otherwise making the measure car-centric enough to avoid opposition from the Hospitality Association and Farm Bureau (both of which threatened to oppose the Measure due to the trail funding but, in the end, did not).

Measure Z

Oil interests, led by Chevron, probably set some kind of Monterey County record by spending more than $5 million in their unsuccessful effort to defeat Measure Z. On a dollars-per-vote-gained basis, though, they will probably still fall short of the better than $217 per vote Cal Am spent in 2014 to prevent the Monterey Peninsula Water District from finding out whether public ownership of the water system would make economic sense.

In an even marginally sane and science-driven world, Monterey County’s extremely carbon intensive oil (dirtier even than the infamous Canadian tar sands) would have been taken out of production more than 20 years ago (the urgent need to radically reduce carbon emissions was internationally recognized in 1988, let’s not forget), so Measure Z, which allows current operations to continue, is hardly a radical measure. It is, in fact, little more than a first tentative step toward protecting our water and climate. But the planet’s most powerful and irresponsible industries do not suffer interference in their operations gladly.

With nearly 56% of voters in favor, in spite of opponents outspending proponents by better than 30 to 1, this was an extremely impressive victory. Hopefully, it is a victory that will inspire others to take similar grassroots level action. The prospects for leadership on climate issues at the national and international levels aren’t looking so good.


Is a Sane Evacuation Policy Too Much to Ask For?

August 24, 2016

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Dealing with disaster is hard enough already. The rules shouldn’t make it harder.

The way we handle evacuations is broken. Current policy actually encourages people to ignore evacuation orders and has, during the Soberanes Fire, led to a wide variety of injustices and absurdities. Read the rest of this entry »


A Boring Post About Transportation Policy

April 24, 2016

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Traffic

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in eight years of blogging, it’s that if you want anyone to read your stuff, don’t write about transportation issues. My 2008 posts examining the Transportation Agency for Monterey County’s failed efforts to pass a transportation sales tax measure remain, by a considerable margin, the least popular pages on this site. Last month’s post about current water levels in South County reservoirs got more page views in a few days than transportation-related posts get in years. Read the rest of this entry »


Dogs Banned from Carmel Beach

April 1, 2016

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The end of an era

The City of Carmel announced today that dogs have been banned from the Carmel Beach effective immediately. The ban is the result of a determination that the sound of barking constitutes a public health emergency. While monitoring of decibel levels near the beach has failed to find any instances of barking that exceeds government noise standards, the City believes those standards aren’t strict enough and that Scenic Road residents, in spite of having bought property next to a public beach, simply can’t be expected to put up with the sound of dogs frolicking in the surf and chasing each other in circles on the sand.

“Even extremely low levels of noise can be detrimental to physical and emotional health,” says a City spokesman, “and people living in multi-million dollar homes seem to be particularly vulnerable. Now that we’ve learned about the impacts of noise, we can’t pretend we don’t know how harmful it is. ”

Dogs are banned from most beaches in California and this has led to a gradual increase in the number of dogs visiting the Carmel Beach. While noise has only recently emerged as an issue, many Carmel residents have been complaining for years about an increase in visits by mangy mutts from outside the City of Carmel.

“I know it’s not politically correct to say this,” warns a member of the City Council, “but 70% of the dogs on the beach these days are not purebreds from the City of Carmel. These outside dogs just don’t have enough respect for the sensitive feelings of our residents. They just aren’t our kind of dogs.”

“Just to be clear, though,” interjects another member of the Council, “that has nothing to do with the decision to impose a ban. The ban is only because of the extreme public health emergency being created by barking.”

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A Carmel dog drowns his sorrow over the closing of the beach


The Sorry State of Water Conservation on the Monterey Peninsula

February 5, 2016

For years local officials have waived off suggestions that the Monterey Peninsula could do more to save water by falsely claiming that “residents of the Monterey Peninsula use less water per person per day than anywhere else in the state.” They’ve even gone so far as to publish fraudulent figures purporting to support this claim.

The purpose of this grandiose bragging has been to promote approval of as large and growth-inducing a new water project, whether dam or desal, as possible. That effort appears to have succeeded, but at the cost of undercutting efforts to increase water conservation. Read the rest of this entry »