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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Coastal District Fights California Over Water

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (CN) - Marina Coast Water District sued the California State Lands Commission to try to stop drilling on a test well for a desalination plant for the Monterey Bay Peninsula.

The California American Water Co. is named as a real party in interest in the Jan. 15 lawsuit in Santa Cruz County Court. The water district's lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission over the same issue is before the same court.

The Ag Land Trust is also a party in that lawsuit against California American Water (Cal-Am) and the Coastal Commission. Cal-Am spokeswoman Catherine Stedman said Cal-Am would likely move to combine this latest suit with the first.

The desalination plant is being built by Cal-Am, which has been on a deadline to find a new water source for the Monterey Peninsula since 1995, when the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Cal-Am to reduce illegal pumping of the Carmel River.

In 2009, a cease-and-desist order imposed a deadline of Jan. 1, 2017, when pumping from the river is to be cut by more than 50 percent, a terrifying prospect for a regional economy that relies on tourism and boasts some of the best golf courses in the world.

"The desal plant is the solution to the peninsula's water shortage, which is extremely serious," Stedman said. "If the order were imposed it would be absolutely devastating to our community."

According to the lawsuit, Marina Coast Water District, which serves about 30,000 customers just a few miles north of the Monterey Peninsula, is concerned that Cal-Am's desalination project could harm the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin, where Marina's water comes from.

Cal-Am's desal project is in north Marina and is projected to produce about 5.4 million gallons of water per day. It calls for slant wells to be drilled near the coastline that would take ocean water from the tip of the Salinas Valley basin. A small amount of fresh water would be drawn in as well, but would be replaced.

Cal-Am will use the test slant well to calculate how much water being drawn is groundwater and how much is seawater.

It hopes to show that the desalination plant would not draw more from the Salinas Valley aquifer, from which it has no water rights, than it would pump back in. The test slant well is to be drilled 1,000 feet into the bay and 290 feet below the ocean floor.

"The test will allow us to answer a series of questions: How much water can we really draw from one well? And that gets to the feasibility of the project. ... It also tests water quality and will help with finalizing treatment protocols," Stedman said. "But perhaps most importantly it will answer the question of how much water will be ocean water versus groundwater, which has been the issue for many groups. There is a concern that it will impact the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin."

That concern led the City of Marina to deny Cal-Am a permit to launch the project, but Cal-Am appealed to the Coastal Commission, won approval and began building in November 2014.

Cal-Am hopes to be done by March, when the Western snowy plover nesting season will stop construction.

On Jan. 21, Marina Coast's request for a temporary restraining order to stop the drilling was denied in Santa Cruz County Court. Judge Paul Marigonda scheduled a preliminary injunction hearing for April 21.

Marina Coast's complaint against the State Lands Commission claims that the state's approval for the test well did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act because the commission relied on a "substitute" environmental document prepared by the Coastal Commission that was "piecemealed" together and failed to properly analyze the project. In particular, the document failed to recognize that the test well would remain as part of the larger permanent project.

Stedman acknowledged that the test well might remain, but only if the project were approved, and that Cal-Am is monitoring the test well to make sure there is no significant impact to the basin. The tests could take two years.

"We are drilling vertical monitoring wells to measure the level in the basin and if we see it drop by a foot, then we would stop production of the test well," she said.

Stedman said that if everything continues as planned, the desalination plant would be operational in 2019, two years beyond the state deadline. Salinas Valley's agricultural industry, which produces more than $1 billion of produce each year, also threatened to sue, but Stedman said companies want to see the results of the test well first.

Cal-Am serves about 630,000 people in 50 communities throughout California. Its parent company American Water, headquartered in Voorhees, N.J., is the largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility company in the United States, according to its website. It serves an estimated 14 million people in more than 40 states and parts of Canada, operating as regulated utilities in 16 of those states.

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