Santa Cruz >> A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge has denied a bid by the Marina Coast Water District and Ag Land Trust to halt California American Water’s desalination test well project, clearing the way for it to be finished and pumping to begin by March 1.
Judge Paul Marigonda ruled that the “overwhelming harm” caused by a delay in the project outweighed the chances that the petitioners would ultimately prevail in their lawsuits seeking to stop the Cal Am test well program.
Cal Am’s test well project manager Ian Crooks called the ruling a “good decision for the Monterey Peninsula to allow valuable data to be collected for everyone.”
Crooks said the test well drilling on the north Marina Cemex sand mining plant site has already reached the 300-foot depth and is on track to be finished by the end of February, with pumping to begin the next day.
Cal Am’s test well program is seen as a key element in gauging the potential impact on the Salinas Valley groundwater basin of continuous pumping from slant wells stretching beneath the ocean floor to feed a proposed desal plant. It was called for by a hydrogeologic working group formed to provide oversight on the desal intake proposal and backed by the state water board.
The test well data will not be included in the desal project draft environmental impact report, due to be published Jan. 30, but is designed to confirm the presumptions of computerized groundwater modeling included in the EIR.
Marina Coast and the Ag Land Trust both sued Cal Am and the state Coastal Commission, which approved the test well project in October, alleging potential significant harm to the water supply and environment near the Cemex sand mining plant where the test well and monitoring wells are being drilled. They also alleged the Coastal Commission erred in overturning an earlier rejection of the test well project by Marina city officials.
After a few hours of reviewing legal briefs from both sides a day after Marina Coast and Ag Land Trust submitted their bid for a temporary restraining order in Santa Cruz, Marigonda said the harm of delaying the test well program until next fall if he ordered a halt to the drilling and the impact of continued pumping from the Carmel River were too great, noting the project included mitigation measures designed to offset any impacts.
Construction on the test well project must be complete before the protected snowy plover mating season starts in the spring or it would be postponed until October.
The desal project is designed to provide a replacement source of water to offset the state-ordered cutback in pumping from the river that is currently scheduled to take full effect at the start of 2017. Cal Am’s project has been delayed several times already, and won’t be operational until 2019 at the earliest.
Cal Am is required to stop pumping if monitoring shows groundwater levels dropping and salinity increasing in nearby wells, along with other measures, and will be required to post all test well program data on the project web site.
Marigonda also set an April 21 hearing on a preliminary injunction against the project, and a July 23 hearing on a writ of mandate, both sought by Marina Coast and Ag Land Trust.
Crooks said he hopes operation of the test well for several weeks before the preliminary injunction hearing will help convince the court there will be no negative impact.
Marina Coast originally filed the suit in Sacramento, but Cal Am won a bid to move the case to Monterey before both sides agreed to transfer it to Santa Cruz.
Jim Johnson can be reached at 726-4348.