Monterey Bay desalination plant approved by California Coastal Commission

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California Construction News staff writer

The California Coastal Commission (Commission) has approved a development permit for intake slant wells needed to provide ocean water and brackish groundwater to California American Water’s proposed desalination plant.

Construction is expected to begin in 2024 and be in service by the end of 2027. California American Water expects to maximize State Revolving Fund financing and other available grants to help reduce the cost impact to customers.

“With the Commission’s vote and approval, we have received the major regulatory milestone needed to finally solve the long-standing water supply needs of the Monterey Peninsula,” said Kevin Tilden, president of California American Water. “This is a significant victory for the Carmel River, and will support desperately needed new housing, economic development and vitality, as well as help ensure water security for those who live and work on the Monterey Peninsula.”

The plant is one of three major projects that California American Water has proposed to diversify the area’s water supply and relieve the Carmel River Aquifer. The other two components are aquifer storage and recovery and a groundwater replenishment and recycled water project that together with other smaller projects will bring drought-proof and environmentally sustainable water supplies to the Monterey Peninsula.

Over 100 supporters sent letters and spoke at the Coastal Commission hearing to advocate for the need to develop new water supplies for new housing, jobs, and environmental protection.

Conditions required by the Commission include expanding affordability programs and ongoing outreach and reporting to the City of Marina. A $3 million community benefit for Marina residents to address concerns about the location of the intake wells in the city was also included as a condition.

“This project was conceived a decade ago and has been through extensive review and comment by key stakeholders,” Tilden said. “This was a truly collaborative process that incorporated perspectives and interested parties on the Peninsula whether they be our government partners, community organizations, or individual citizens. We listened and, to the extent reasonably possible, addressed their concerns. Subjects of discussion included water supply needs, affordability, public access, community benefits, saltwater intrusion, equity, and a myriad of other important topics.”

The plant has an initial 4.8 million-gallons-per-day capacity and will rely on greenhouse gas-free renewable energy sources. It is designed, however, to accommodate a phased increase in capacity to provide for future needs for the Peninsula and region, and possible direct public participation in the project. This added flexibility in design was in response to concern regarding future supply needs.

Coastal Commission staff acknowledged that even if the company meets the conditions, the environmental justice impacts remain in Marina and elsewhere. In May, the commissioners unanimously rejected another controversial plant proposed by developer Poseidon Water in Huntington Beach, citing environmental harms, high costs and lack of local demand. But a smaller, less-expensive plant proposed by a public water agency in Dana Point sailed through the approval process in October.

Costs of construction remain unknown because the company says it is waiting for the commission’s approval before bidding the construction and material costs. But the company’s previous estimate is around $330 million; the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District estimates more than $420 million.

The desalinated water could cost more than $6,000 per acre-foot. The estimated 50% increase in rates will “disproportionately burden low-income ratepayers in the service area and residents in the City of Marina,” according to commission staff.

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