West Coast
An employee at the Carlsbad desalination plant walks by some of the 2,000 pressure vessels containing reverse osmosis filters. Photo by Chris Jennewein

CA - Coastal Commission OKs Second New Desalination Plant of 2022 for Monterey Bay

The California Coastal Commission has approved another desalination plant, despite citing its high costs, risks to Monterey Bay’s environment and “the most significant environmental justice issues” the commission has faced in recent years.

The commission’s divided, 8-to-2 vote came Thursday night after 13 hours of debate at a Salinas public hearing packed with several hundred people, plus more crammed into overflow space. Many of the 375 who signed up to speak opposed the project — some in tears.

Much of the debate focused on the fairness of locating a for-profit company’s facility in the Monterey County city of Marina — which does not need the water and is home to designated disadvantaged neighborhoods. The expensive supply will flow to other communities, including the whiter, wealthy enclaves of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach.

“It’s our city, our water, our beaches, our wildlife — so that Cal-Am can send the water to another wealthier community who don’t even want it,” Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado told commissioners, his voice breaking.

California American Water, the nation’s largest publicly traded water and wastewater company, plans to build the plant to pump ocean water, desalinate it and provide drinking water to 100,000 people on the Monterey Peninsula. The largely Latino, agricultural community of Castroville would also receive the water at a discount.

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Desalination project wins approval despite equity concerns / Los Angeles Times / November 19, 2022

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Today, nine years after the project was first proposed, commissioners approved the plant along with a long list of conditions aimed at limiting the harm to dunes and wetlands, groundwater stores and local communities. The company must still obtain an array of local, state and federal permits, and resolve a court battle over groundwater rights before construction could begin.

Coastal Commission staff warned that the plant would require overriding parts of the state’s Coastal Act, and would have “substantial impacts” to sensitive habitat areas for threatened and endangered species such as the Western snowy plover, which nests in dunes there.

The approval is a pivot from the staff’s 2020 recommendation to reject the company’s proposal to build a larger plant. Since then, California has faced its driest three-year stretch on record, and a fourth drought year is looming, making the need for new drinking water supplies more urgent.

The decision pits environmental justice concerns and ecological impacts against the precarious water supply of the Monterey Peninsula, which does not receive imported water and relies instead on over-pumped groundwater, the overtaxed Carmel River and highly-treated wastewater. Parts of the peninsula have been under a moratorium for new water connections for longer than a decade.

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