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A small city fights plans for a desalination plant

Angela Johnston
Ian Crooks, head engineer at California American Water Company, inspects the test well for their future desalination plant.


When you’re driving down the coast on Highway 1 toward Monterey, you may miss the exit for the tiny city of Marina. It’s often overshadowed by its neighbors: Monterey with the aquarium and Cannery Row, Carmel by the Sea. But if you take that exit, you’ll pass a Walmart, some fast food chains, and row of hotels. What makes the city stand out is it’s dozens of beach trails.

A David and Goliath story

These almost unlimited coastal access points are what made Kathy Biala move here five years ago. She’s taking me to one of her favorite walking spots on the shore, but before we reach the beach Biala wants to take me on a little detour. We drive past the wastewater treatment plant, then to the regional landfill, and finally to a sand mining plant — a post-apocalyptic looking moonscape where sand from Marina beaches gets packaged for places like Home Depot, golf courses, and concrete manufacturers. The state determined that it was causing some of the worst beach erosion in California.

Credit Angela Johnston
Kathy Biala and her husband point out the future site of the desalination plant's seven slant wells.

Biala tells me these sites tell a bigger story. Most of Marina is disadvantaged, with many residents living below the poverty line. It’s why she thinks the wealthier Monterey Peninsula uses the city as a dumping ground  for these less desirable pieces of infrastructure. It’s something that often happens in poorer communities that don’t have the time or money to fight back.

“There's a real concern of us being exploited by more polished, more politically connected and wealthier communities around us.”

When we get to the beach Biala points out what she considers the next example of this exploitation: The California American Water Company (CalAm) wants to build a desalination plant here.

The desalination plant would have seven wells sloping into the ground and sucking up water underneath the dunes, removing the salt, and sending it to cities on the  Monterey Peninsula ... but not Marina. They wouldn’t get any of the desalinated water because they’re not served by CalAm. Biala and other Marina residents oppose the plant because they think it will cause irreversible damage to their town’s ecosystems.

Strapped for water

Desalination plant or not, the region needs water, fast.

“We need water for the near term and we do need water for the long term,” says Monterey Peninsula Water Management District general manager Dave Stoldt. The management district is like the Switzerland in this whole battle — pretty neutral. He says this drama really began in the 80s, when the water company Cal Am over-pumped the Carmel River, then was forced off a nearby basin. They tried to build a dam, but endangered steelhead trout and red legged frogs squashed that plan

“The federal agencies basically said don't even think about a dam on the river don't come back with another dam proposal,” he says.

In the meantime, the Aquarium opens, tourism takes off. By 2009, CalAm still hadn’t found a new water source. The state Water Board still wasn’t happy.

“The state said ‘Hey remember back 14 years ago when we said you need to get off the river? You haven't made any progress.’”

By 2017, they still weren’t off the river. So the state said they’d start penalizing CalAm if it didn’t create a new water source soon.

“Eventually you get into a point where if you abide by the state's penalties you don't have enough water to serve our 20,000 hospitality jobs. And so that's a big fear in the business community,” he says.

So CalAm championed the building of a desalination plant. It’ll let them meet the water needs of the Monterey Peninsula, plus there’s sort of this guarantee that it’ll never run dry.

“Obviously the ocean is not going away. People are very excited about looking at a drought-proof resource,” Stoldt says.

An expensive way to secure water

But desalination technology costs a lot. It’s one of the most expensive ways to secure water mainly because it takes an incredible amount of energy to do it. It works by pushing millions of gallons water -- under very intense pressure -- through very very fine membranes to take the salt out of salt water. Desalination plants can cost millions of dollars to build and just as much to operate, but CalAm head engineer Ian Crooks says: they’ve got to do it.

“It’s really the only option left.”

As we drive to the plant’s future site, he tells me the state put a hold on new Monterey Peninsula water hookups - for affordable housing, hotels, businesses - until CalAm can secure a new water supply. At the edge of the sand dunes, Crooks shows me a test well they drilled back in 2015.

Credit Angela Johnston
CalAm drilled a pilot well back in 2015 to test the water they were pulling from under the dunes.

All you can really see is a series of plastic tubes attached to one giant stainless steel pipe. It’s a bit wider than a telephone pole, jutting diagonally into the ground toward the ocean. You can only see the tip of it.

“This thing's about 725 feet long. Down in the middle of it is a pump,” Crooks describes.

The big stainless steel pipe slants underground and at the end, there’s a big vent, where water gets sucked up. The vent isn’t the ocean - it’s pulling up water in deep underground aquifers close to the edge of the shoreline.

The ground acts as its own natural filter. Not having a pipe sticking directly into the ocean means sea creatures and fish won’t get sucked up.

“We're simply at or near the coast sticking a straw underground into that natural flow of seawater into the basin and capturing it,” Crooks says.

Not in Marina’s backyard

People in the city of Marina, where the wells are located, don’t buy it. They don’t want the plant in their backyard, and some are calling it a water grab. They believe that since the wells aren’t in the ocean, they’d be taking the underground water directly from Marina’s own water source. Even though it’s salty, they think it’s still theirs, and if CalAm took too much of it that could cause further harm to Marina’s groundwater, by removing a barrier between ocean and freshwater. Marina hydrogeologists and residents don't think CalAm's environmental impact report even anaylzed these changes in the water quality of entire groundwater basin, a basin used by other communities like Fort Ord.

Dozens of people pack City Council and Coastal Commission meetings, and they’ve protested everything from how they think plant will hurt the endangered western snowy plover to how the briny salty discharge that’ll shoot back out of the plant could harm ocean life. But, they keep coming back to their groundwater.

How many hydrogeologists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

While CalAm points to apositive independent environmental impact report and their test wells, Marina’s water scientists back up their harm hypothesis with a Stanford study. A helicopter flew a electromagnetic sensor over the area to paint a picture of the water underground the plant site and map out its salinity.

"And so if I'm a really smart judge, I might just go, 'Huh, both arguments make some sense,'" says Stoldt, manager of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.

How do we know what’s going to happen?

“Well see that's the thing. You don't,” Stoldt says. “And so how many hydrogeologist does it take to screw in a light bulb? There's like four different ones working on the same project.”

Or maybe it’s a matter of what’s more important - the needs of an entire peninsula and a tourism industry, or a small town’s agency to govern its landscape and prepare for its future.

“One way to find out is build it and then see what happens. And seven years into it you might go ‘oh oops’ all of our assumptions were wrong,” Stoldt says.

You can’t unbuild a project, and fixing it may be even more expensive than building it in the first place. For now, the City of Marina and CalAm are involved in a back and forth battle of lawsuits and permit denials and appeals with almost all levels of government. CalAm hopes to break ground by the end of this year on the desalination project, just in time to avoid penalties from the state. But in its most recent quarterly report, CalAm’sparent company wrote: “There can be no assurance that the Water Supply Project will be completed on a timely basis, if ever.


Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.