A desalination plant can transform the Monterey Peninsula and help avert a water crisis

Jan 8, 2020 | Environment

By Jeff Davi | Special to CalMatters

Nobody likes to look out to the Pacific Ocean and see oil derricks on the horizon. That’s why California wisely banned new offshore oil drilling 50 years ago.

But in Monterey County, coastal views are limited by a relic of a bygone era: a giant, industrial sand plant right on the dunes between Highway One and the ocean.

In 2017, the California Coastal Commission reached an agreement with the sand plant for operations to shut down by 2020 and for all buildings and equipment to be removed by 2023.

Soon, the commission will have an opportunity to ensure that in addition to preserving this land as open space with views that everyone can enjoy, it will also become part of an innovative desalination project providing substantial benefits to Monterey County.

The commission’s core purpose is to reconnect Californians to the coast, an aim this project accomplishes. But there is another, equally important reason for the commission to vote yes: Monterey’s decades-long water problems would be solved.

The Monterey Peninsula has lived under extreme water conservation for many years. Despite extensive conservation efforts, the region suffers from the state’s familiar water issues of infrequent rainfall, depleted groundwater, and an overstrained river that is home to threatened species. For over a century, the Monterey Peninsula relied on the Carmel River as its primary source of water. But the State Water Board has issued orders that will preclude most of that use in the future.

Enter desalination.

Last September, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously granted approval for a groundbreaking ocean desalination project proposed by California American Water near Marina. The facility would remove salt from seawater and make it drinkable. It would situate wells beneath the beach on the site of the old sand plant to draw in ocean water that will be pumped to a state-of-the-art desalination facility located inland.

Removal of the sand mining plant and approval of the desalination project will create a future in which the old sand plant would be replaced with coastal open space. Instead of a hulking, rusty industrial plant, visitors would see unobstructed views of the Pacific and be able to enjoy beach access all day. The desalination facility would not be visible from the coastline and the only evidence of the source wells will be the size of a small shed located away from the shore and behind the dunes.

We propose to remove salt from water, making it drinkable, by using slant wells that capture seawater and a perforated pipe that would be submerged under the sand and ocean floor at the coastline. Slant wells are widely considered to be the most environmentally-friendly way to do saltwater intake because they provide maximum protection for sea life.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s analysis says the project would have no significant environmental impacts. And there would be permanent benefits by allowing for the restoration of  the Carmel River, so steelhead could return.

Water rates would be kept affordable, because the project is a public-private partnership. One part of the facility would be built and owned by a regulated private utility company, and another part of it would be publicly owned.

A third part of it, aquifer storage and recovery, would be a mix of private and public ownership. The entire project would be funded by public and private sources, including grants and low-interest public financing.

Another benefit would be that we intend to recycle wastewater from agricultural and storm runoff, and we will help restore aquifers. When the Carmel River overflows in the winter, water will be delivered into aquifers for use during the dry season.

Like the California Public Utilities Commission before it, the California Coastal Commission should approve this project unanimously. The project faces only token opposition from a small, litigious group that has been defeated in court again and again.

We urge the Coastal Commission to approve this project to end the decades-long water crisis in Monterey, and help restore an amazing coastal area so the public can once again enjoy the beaches of Marina.

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Jeff Davi is a former California Real Estate Commissioner and Realtor who lives in Carmel. Jeff@JeffDavi.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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