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California water company withdraws desalination proposal as battle over environmental justice heats up

By Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES - Amid mounting controversy and concerns over environmental justice, California American Water on Wednesday withdrew its application for a desalination project in the small Monterey Bay town of Marina.

The proposal had become one of the most fraught issues to come before the California Coastal Commission, which was set to vote Thursday. The decision would have been the first major test of the commission's new power to review not only harm to the environment when making decisions but also harm to underrepresented communities.

At stake was the contentious future of water on the Monterey Peninsula as well as the role government should play in addressing issues of environmental inequity.

Water demand projections, local groundwater impacts and other water supply concerns have been hotly disputed across the region, but one looming question was whether it was fair to continue burdening some coastal communities with industrial projects while others are gentrified.

The water project itself, many pointed out, would not even supply the residents of Marina. Others questioned the cost of this major infrastructure project, which could burden ratepayers with $1 billion more over the next 30 years.

"Over the last several weeks we heard serious environmental justice concerns from residents of Marina, and cost concerns from our customers," Catherine Stedman, a spokeswoman for Cal Am, said in a statement. "We would like to have further discussions with the residents of Marina (or City of Marina) and also spend more time explaining our proposed enhancements to our low income program for Monterey customers before seeking a vote by the Commission."

 

"We are hoping to be back in front of the Commission in a few months," Stedman said. "We still believe this is the right project in the right location, but want to build bridges to the extent possible."

Cal Am is under a decades-old order from the State Water Resources Control Board to stop overpumping the Carmel River by December 2021. Since 1995, the company has made numerous efforts to develop an alternative supply for such a water-challenged region. (The Monterey Peninsula is isolated from state and federal aqueducts and has limited water options.)

The river, where 10,000 steelhead trout once spawned, has suffered greatly from the region's water demands. No trout were observed during the last drought, and the lower 9.5 miles of the river are seasonally dry in most years because of continued illegal diversions, water officials said.

The project has the support of steelhead conservationists, major farming and business groups, as well as hotels and developers in the region who for years have been unable to expand without more water. Cal Am has also met privately with some of Gov. Gavin Newsom's top officials, including Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld, who says it's imperative to save the Carmel River.

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