Cambria at risk of depleting its water supply

A perfect storm of conditions has made this season especially dry, and some say shortage is a crisis

ktanner@thetribunenews.comSeptember 9, 2013 

Cambria’s 6,200 residents are at risk of running out of water before there’s sufficient rainfall to refill area creeks and aquifers, services district directors were told at a special meeting Monday.

The inability to use one of the town’s two primary water supplies for much of this year interfered with how the Cambria Community Services District manages its water use. Now district ratepayers, already water thrifty, could face additional conservation mandates, see surcharges on their bills if they use more water than the average district user, and possibly pay $1 million or so for a self-contained desalination system to keep taps flowing until there’s sufficient rainfall to refill the water table.

Rain of that volume is not expected for at least two months. District Engineer Bob Gresens estimates there is about 101 acre-feet of water left in the San Simeon aquifer, but based on usage in a similar year, 2007, consumers would use about 120 acre-feet in September and October.

The board set a special public hearing for Sept. 20 to discuss and take action on possible fixes.

Surcharges were last imposed in July through December 2007, and the action reduced water use an estimated 13 percent during the summer and 6 percent in the fall. About a third of Cambria’s water users paid anywhere from 25 to 450 percent in surcharges for using more than the district’s average residential water use of 12 units (nearly 9,000 gallons) per two-month billing period, an average of about 150 gallons per day.

Board Vice President Jim Bahringer suggested looking into buying (perhaps with emergency funding) a $1 million, 240,000-gallon-per-day, self-contained desalination system that could treat either brackish water pulled from a deep well on district property off San Simeon Creek Road or seawater from a well closer to the shoreline. The district usually produces about 700,000 gallons a day.

Director Amanda Rice suggested a more immediate action, such as going face-to-face with the 25 customers who use the most water, to see whether there’s a way to reduce their consumption.

About 45 members of the public attended Monday’s special meeting. Some made accusations that earlier in the year, the board and staff had ignored warnings from critics about the potential severity of the situation at a time when they could have done something about it.

District watchdog Tina Dickason threatened, “If you don’t act in a way that is responsible, the next action is recall, and I will be the one to start it.”

While low water levels are typical at this time of year, a perfect storm of conditions has made a bad situation critical — somewhere between an emergency and a crisis, according to board members, staffers and the 17 members of the public who spoke at the meeting.

Officials said causes of Cambria’s well-level plummet include a statewide drought, warmer-than-usual weather and mechanical malfunctions on a well on the Santa Rosa Creek watershed. The district spent four months and more than $200,000 repairing the pump and updating the well. During that time, the district had to rely solely on its wells along San Simeon Creek. That use drained the aquifer faster than usual.

Levels in the aquifers have plummeted since mid-August, including at a monitoring well that determines when the district can and cannot pump from the Santa Rosa Creek well. The State Water Resources Control Board says to protect the habitat, the trigger point on that monitoring well is 3 feet. At that level or below, the district can’t use the upstream well. As of Monday’s meeting, the monitoring well reading had rebounded slightly to 2.98 feet from 2.90.

Levels in the district’s three San Simeon Creek production wells averaged 3.10 feet on Sept. 3, by far the lowest level in the past decade. The next lowest was 6.32 feet in 2002.

Watch the meeting

Here's video of the Cambria Community Services District's Sept. 9, 2013, special meeting, courtesy of Jeff Hellman.

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