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Blog Post · August 11, 2015

Central Coast a Microcosm of State Water Challenges

Water challenges around the state are in many ways unique to a particular place, but there are also many similarities and lessons to be learned from place to place. We talked to Richard Frank, a member of PPIC Water Policy Center’s research network, about water management on the Central Coast, where he lives when he isn’t teaching environmental law at UC Davis and directing the school’s California Environmental Law and Policy Center.

PPIC: How are Central Coast water challenges a harbinger for California’s water future?

Richard Frank: First off, even before the current drought, the Central Coast experienced chronic water shortages; we came to a crisis point earlier than the rest of the state. Water shortages are a constant problem here, especially for the Monterey Peninsula—in part because the region isn’t connected to any of the large state or federal water projects. As the Central Coast grapples with trying to achieve water supply self-sufficiency, it’s helping to forge a path for other regions—especially in the southern part of state, which has become far more aggressive at developing regional supplies and reducing reliance on centralized state systems.

Monterey County also reflects an interesting statewide phenomenon. We have a growing divide between a relatively prosperous urbanized coastal zone competing for water with a rural inland area—the Salinas Valley—that is one of most vibrant agricultural areas in the state, and even the nation. We’ve been slowly increasing urban demands for water at the same time that agriculture’s large, steady demands are ever more challenging to meet. I’ve been struck by how this one county illustrates a broader California dynamic—a tale of two states. The classic conflict between Northern and Southern California has become one of urban-coastal vs. inland-agricultural.

Our region is also ahead of the game in the debate about desalination. Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties had been considering a joint project, but in recent months, the alliance has fractured. Monterey is still cautiously proceeding with plans for a desalination plant. Though it is not without concerns, I think it’s the least bad alternative we have. I don’t think we can conserve our way out of major droughts in this region, especially since we’re likely facing a “new normal” of hotter weather and more persistent droughts. We also can’t increase our groundwater pumping indefinitely. We have a big groundwater problem on the Central Coast—over-pumping has caused saltwater intrusion, which is contaminating our groundwater supply. Connecting to state and federal water projects is not a solution. They aren’t able to meet existing demand and can’t expand deliveries, given concerns about water needs for endangered species.

PPIC: What could the rest of the state learn from how the Central Coast has managed its biggest water challenges?

RF: We have a small market-based system for water transfers in urban areas in Monterey. Each property is assigned water credits, which can be traded; we’ve developed something of a robust market in water credits. It’s based on historic use. Each residence gets separate credits for each indoor use of water, and you can’t expand them (for example, add a new bathroom) without additional water credits. It’s a working example of water marketing on a micro-scale. Our market is not as transparent as it should be, though. For example, you can’t go online to see who has credits for sale.

PPIC: What permanent changes do you hope to see come out of this drought?

RF: Some in the Central Coast have adopted a head-in-the-sand attitude about our endemic shortages, and this is something I think the drought is helping to change. For example, we’ve had chronic excess diversion of the Carmel River, to the point that the State Water Board ordered a stop to it. After some resistance, the local water utility was forced to take action and tackle the impending cutbacks on supplies. The desalination project is part of the solution to having cutbacks on this water source. Another positive development is the removal of the outdated San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River; this river restoration is very much a positive development, and a harbinger of a more sustainable future. 

Another positive change is the easing of the disconnect between prosperous coastal communities and inland agricultural areas. I think there is hope for a better relationship between these groups, because the drought is getting people talking more about how to solve our water problems. I am also hoping for a better functioning and more transparent water market. Finally, while we already use some recycled wastewater—for instance, on some golf courses—there’s still a lot of potential for harnessing this resource, including recharging our groundwater basins and helping get them into balance.

Read Richard Frank’s blogs on Legal Planet.

Register for the PPIC Water Policy Center event in Monterey on August 18: Meeting Water Challenges on the Central Coast.


Drought Water, Land & Air