A proposed recycled water project aimed at providing a supplemental supply for the Monterey Peninsula has survived a stalemate over area farmers' water rights, and just in time.
After months of delay, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Pollution Control Agency board of directors on Monday unanimously approved spending for an environmental review of the agency's groundwater replenishment project, and studying agricultural wastewater as a potential feeder source. The $750,000 project budget for the current fiscal year will be paid for through agency reserves, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District user fee revenue and grant funding.
The estimated $75 million recycled water project is aimed at providing an environmentally friendlier water supply to supplement California American Water's proposed Peninsula water supply project. It calls for building a new advanced treatment plant near the agency's current plant north of Marina, processing wastewater and injecting about 3,500 acre feet per year in treated water into the Seaside basin where it will mix with the existing supply until it is needed on the Peninsula.
Pollution Control Agency general manager Keith Israel said he believes the agency can still meet its proposed December 2016 deadline for providing a new recycled water source for the Peninsula, but also acknowledged that the project was on the verge of falling further behind if funding had not been approved.
If ready on time, the project would allow Cal Am to build a smaller desalination plant capable of producing about 6,252 acre-feet per year rather than a larger one with a 9,752 acre-feet per year capacity. It would also provide a less costly source of water as part of the overall Peninsula water supply project designed to provide a replacement source of water to offset the state-ordered cutback in pumping from the Carmel River. Cal Am recently increased the proposed size of the plant by about 700 to 1,000 acre-feet per year to accommodate development on lots of record, tourism recovery and Pebble Beach build-out, among other projected needs.
Under a public governance agreement approved by the Peninsula mayors, county supervisors, Monterey Peninsula Water Management District directors and Cal Am's board of directors, the decision about whether the groundwater replenishment project would be ready to deliver water on time would be made by a committee with representatives from each of the participating entities.
Area officials also have expressed the hope that Cal Am's project, already delayed a year beyond the state's January 2016 deadline, is postponed further so that progress on supplemental projects such as groundwater replenishment and aquifer storage and recovery could help convince the state water board to grant some temporary relief from rationing or penalties. Even if Cal Am's project is scuttled, the supplemental projects could proceed.
In addition, Israel said the "trend" in public funding for the water projects is toward "regional solutions," and that a "diversity" of water supplies is important.
Israel said he believed the proposal to look at using ag wastewater from sources such as the Salinas Industrial Treatment Plant ponds, the Blanco Drain and the Reclamation Ditch to feed the agency's proposed recycled water project was essential in getting area farming interests to back off their opposition, which had stalled progress on the project since last fall.
In late October, Salinas and North County representatives on the pollution control agency board blocked approval of spending on the environmental review after growers expressed concern that the project would impinge on what they argued was their share of recycled water from the agency's existing treatment plant. The original plan called for using a portion of the recycled water produced by the existing plant but not currently used for crop irrigation as feeder water for the new treatment plant, but growers demanded an agreement stating that they had a right to the 19,500 acre-feet of water per year they said they were promised when they agreed to pay for the existing plant project.
A proposed water rights agreement backed by the growers was not approved by the agency board on Monday, and Israel acknowledged that the issue remains unresolved.
However, Israel said he pointed out during months of talks with the growers that wastewater flows had been decreasing for a decade, especially from the water-short Peninsula, and rationing prompted by a delay in Cal Am's water project would further trim the wastewater supply. Any new or expanded recycled water projects would need another source, he said.
In addition, Israel said using ag wastewater could help resolve pending issues for the city of Salinas and the Salinas Valley regarding capacity and runoff water quality.
Salinas Valley Water Coalition spokeswoman Nancy Isakson disagreed that the decision to pursue ag wastewater was a key component of the growers' willingness to take a step back from their opposition. Isakson said they simply agreed to work with the agency and would fight to protect their water rights later, if needed.
Israel said he understands the growers have not given the project a "green light," and remain cautious, but said talks will continue in an effort to reach a resolution.
Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or firstname.lastname@example.org.