Shared from the 9/13/2018 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

OPEN FORUM On California Water

Solution to water woes — seawater

Damon Winter / New York Times 2015

Desalination plants, long ignored as too costly and environmentally harmful, are being pursued in California.

“During the dry years, the people forgot about the rich years, and when the wet years returned, they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

— John Steinbeck, ‘East of Eden’

Environmental calamities recently have battered California with alarming frequency. Over the past year, we have suffered the most damaging wildfires in our history. But, as in Steinbeck’s era, chronic water scarcity remains our most serious environmental problem.

In some corners of the state, extreme water conservation has become a year-round way of life. This is certainly the case on the Monterey Peninsula.

The region is the state in microcosm. Rainfall is infrequent. Groundwater is scarce. The aquifers are depleted. Farmers don’t have enough water for their crops. And the state has determined that the Carmel River can no longer be used as a source of fresh water for the community. In short, Monterey has all of the state’s water problems, all in the same spot.

But there is a solution on the horizon. And it’s the same solution that, on a bigger scale, can help solve the state’s water problems: the Pacific Ocean.

On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission has the opportunity to grant final approval of an ocean desalination project that, when completed, will solve the Monterey Peninsula’s water woes. But more significantly, it will also serve as a working model of desalination done right.

The Monterey project has three aspects that make it work so well:

Desalination — the project uses “slant wells” to capture seawater safely. Slant wells are simply normal groundwater wells drilled at an angle, in this case 15 to 20 percent. Imagine a perforated drinking straw beneath the sandy floor near the coast and you’ll understand the basic concept. In contrast to “open ocean” intake systems, slant wells virtually eliminate any harm to sea life. Slant wells also eliminate the need for pretreatment, saving millions of dollars.

Water recycling — wastewater from agricultural and storm water will be purified into drinking water using advanced treatment technology.

Aquifer storage and recovery — excess rainy-season flows from the Carmel River will be stored for use during the dry season.

The Monterey desalination project will also serve as a statewide model because it’s a public-private partnership. The desalination facility will be built and owned by a regulated private utility company. The water recycling facility will be publicly owned. And the aquifer storage and recovery will be a mix of private and public ownership. All three parts of the project will be funded by public and private sources, including grants and low-interest public financing. This arrangement aims to minimize rate impacts to customers.

This project will end the decades-long water crisis in Monterey. And, according to the CPUC’s analysis, it will do so without any significant environmental impacts. In fact, the Carmel River will finally be returned to its near natural state, as Steinbeck described it, “everything a river should be.”

It’s time for the CPUC to issue final approval of this project. The community will have a reliable and sustainable water supply, and the Carmel River will be restored. It’s a model project that will show the whole state that the permanent solution to our water problems can be found right next door, in the Pacific Ocean.

Michael L. Waxer is the president of the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, which aims to restore and preserve the biodiversity of the river through education and advocacy.

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