MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) — Water customers in Monterey County sued a slew of public agencies this week, claiming they allow a private company to make millions of dollars by selling water to which it has no legal right.
The Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula sued Monterey County, the California Coastal Commission, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency and their governing boards, claiming they allow the California American Water Company to run roughshod over the law at citizens’ expense.
The ratepayers association sued the state agencies on Tuesday in Superior Court. California American Water Co., or Cal-Am, a subsidiary of American Water Works Co., is named as a real party in interest.
The Water Ratepayers Association (WRAMP) was founded and is run by Ron Weitzman, a frequent and strident critic of Cal-Am, who claims the private company’s quest for profits means ratepayers pay more for water than they would if it were supplied by a public entity.
The association says the defendant agencies are duty-bound to enforce the law, but give Cal-Am a free pass.
“Cal-Am is a massive, multimillion-dollar for-profit corporation with a lack of water rights and a record of a 20-year long, chronic and illegal diversion of water from the Carmel River,” the complaint states. “Cal-Am has made, and continues to make, tens of millions of dollars every year selling water to which it has no legal water rights or entitlements.”
WRAMP essentially accuses Cal-Am of a bait and switch: pretending to test a slant well at the Cemex plant in Marina, to withdraw seawater to test desalination techniques so it can build a desalination plant at the site, should the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project obtain approval.
Instead, Cal-Am is illegally drawing potable water from an aquifer near the plant, and the defendant agencies are letting it do so, the suit alleges.
“Cal-Am’s illegal pumping and then its wasting/dumping of the potable groundwater resources will result in significant individual and cumulative adverse impacts, immitigable permanent damage, a continuing nuisance and irreversible seawater intrusion into the potable groundwater resources and aquifers of the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin,” the complaint states. “Further, it will cause irreparable damage to the adjacent protected prime coastal farmlands. “
The association says Cal-Am’s quest to meet water demand on the Monterey Peninsula has led the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin to be in overdraft for the past 60 years. Coastal properties along Monterey Bay have struggled with seawater intrusion, whereby salt water infiltrates freshwater aquifers and ruins them.
To combat the shortage, Cal-Am diverted water from the Carmel River. But in 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board found Cal-Am was diverting 10,730 acre-feet of water from the Carmel River each year, without the right to do so, according to the complaint.
The state agency issued a cease and desist order, setting a deadline of January 2017 for the company to find other sources of water.
While Cal-Am has proposed the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, which includes building a desalination plant near the regional wastewater plant at Marina, the project is still at the preliminary environmental analysis stage.
The project has been dogged by concerns about transparency and fights over water rights.
There are other proposals for desalination plants, including one at Moss Landing, about 30 miles north in the center of Monterey Bay, but these also face significant and lengthy approval processes, and prolonged construction timelines.
Without alternatives to taking water from the Carmel River and demand continuing to exceed supply, WRAMP says ratepayers will “face severe rationing”.
WRAMP seeks writ of mandate ordering the three agencies to enforce three laws pertaining to the slant test well, a preliminary and permanent injunction to stop Cal-Am from pumping water from the Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin until it complies with the laws, and costs of suit.
The Monterey Peninsula, south of Monterey Bay, includes the cities of Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove.
Attempts to get a hold of Ron Weitzman were unsuccessful. No one answered a phone call to his attorney David Balch, of Salinas, and the voicemail is full. Phone calls to Monterey County and an email to the Coastal Commission were not returned.
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