Corps at core of water issues

Army Corps of Engineers spikes some potential water projects while adding some that hadn’t been discussed

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMay 2, 2013 

Cambria services-district directors got some surprises from the Army Corps of Engineers during an April 25 web-link conference, and those updates didn’t include much good news.

Cambria Community Services District directors and customers had wanted to hear that, in recent months, the Corps had made substantial progress toward completing environmental studies of possible projects to provide the district with more water.

That’s not what they heard.

Preferred alternatives

Those federal- and state-level studies have been underway for some time, and were the focus of four public forums last summer.

Last September, the district Board of Directors selected its preferred, possible projects: A brackish-water desalination facility near San Simeon Creek; storing water in an off-stream reservoir on San Simeon Creek Road ranchland; using Whale Rock reservoir near Cayucos to store water during the rainy season; and using water recycled at a San Simeon Community Services District facility.

The Corps determined since then that the off-stream reservoir would be too costly for the amount of water it could provide, while also posing threats to federally protected species. The San Simeon recycled-water option fell off the list when the amount of water available was too small.

According to Corps representatives, that left too few options on the table.

News shared

District directors seemed impatient and upset April 25 when they learned that:

• The Corps had added two new projects to the studies, including one that district directors hadn’t ever considered, discussed or approved. Those additions are: piping water from Morro Bay’s desalination facility, and an often-reviewed project that would draw salty water through horizontal wells near Shamel Park to a desalination facility next to Cambria’s sewage-treatment plant.

District Engineer Bob Gresens said the additions were designed to meet National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements that the study “discuss all factors essential to the agency decision and discuss how those factors influenced the decision.” He said, according to NEPA, the study should include “all reasonable alternatives, including those that are practical or feasible from a technical and economic standpoint, and using common sense … rather than simply being desirable from the standpoint of the applicant.”

In other words, the Corps must study enough possible alternatives, whether or not the district might approve a project on the list.

NEPA requirements differ from those of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which is the document with which most of the district’s projects must comply.

Gresens explained Tuesday, April 30, that NEPA requires “a much more detailed analysis of alternatives, and that they be treated equally” in the study, while “CEQA focuses primarily on the preferred alternative.”

It’s not yet known if Whale Rock or Morro Bay decision makers would want to share their facilities with Cambria.

•The environmental studies don’t appear to be much farther along than they were at the last report. That’s in part because the Corps is being extra frugal with its time and expenditures. According to the quarterly financial report dated April 25, Corps federal funds for overseeing the project are nearly gone (with a balance of slightly more than $8,000), and only has about $38,000 left from $103,113 that the district paid toward the efforts. The studies themselves are paid for.

• While the district had expected, based on the Corps previous estimates, that the draft NEPA/CEQA studies would be ready for agency and public review by May 2013, the current schedule shows that those reports won’t be available until January 2014 at the earliest.

Frustrated, disappointed directors

During the audio-only, computer-linked conference, held during the district board’s regular April 25 meeting, directors heard from various Los Angeles Division Corps staffers who have been working on the project: Kathy Anderson, project manager; Thomas Keeney, biologist with the Corps environmental department; Deborah Lamb, planner; and Jodi Clifford, department head for the Corps environmental planning division.

With a somewhat wobbly connection, it was sometimes difficult to determine who was saying what on behalf of the Corps.

What they were saying, however, left district directors sputtering.

One by one, the board members said they were unhappy with what they were hearing.

Director Muril Clift put it flatly, asking “What is the likelihood you can produce an environmental document by Jan. 10, 2014,” and how can they assure the district those studies will be done by then?

Clift estimated that likelihood at about 10 percent, based on previous performance. However, Anderson set the odds at 80 to 90 percent that the reports would be ready on time.

When Keeney said the delay was in part because the district had requested four public workshops about the project, Clift dismissed those as “an eight-month waste of time. And then you chose something that wasn’t even on the list.”

Keeney said “We told CCSD that NEPA could come back with other alternatives” to add to the list.

Director Gail Robinette said, “On behalf of the citizens of Cambria, we’re clearly disappointed in the direction this has taken … The way this is sounding and heading, I don’t think it’s prudent to consider alternatives you already know aren’t going to work … It seems we’re back at square one. That’s, of course, a deep frustration.”

Some audience members, too, were impatient. Mary Webb said, “There’s no way this should take another eight months. We should have this within 45 days.”

She also challenged the inclusion of the Shamel Park alternative, saying the California Coastal Commission already had turned it down. “There was vocal, strong opposition within the community … and it’s not going to fly.” She said it was wrong “to have that pop up again at this meeting.”

Director Amanda Rice, in making a motion to accept the Corps update, also included the board’s “dissatisfaction and frustration with the current process, and what we should be doing about it.”

The vote was unanimous.

Board President Mike Thompson indicated that directors “probably got more concerns and questions than answers” out of the discussion, and indicated the topic would be on the board’s May 23 agenda for further discussion.

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