Start-up of emergency desal plant in Cambria to take longer than expected

Officials are pushing for a start date in July, but experts say 'best-case scenario' is September

ktanner@thetribunenews.comApril 18, 2014 

It will take longer than hoped for and cost $3 million to $5 million, but Cambria may have an emergency water source online before water sources are expected to dry up in late summer or early fall, engineers said Thursday.

Hopes that a brackish-water desalination plant would be up and running by July 1 are a couple of months optimistic, Mari Garza-Bird, of the consulting firm CDM Smith, told Cambria Community Services District directors at a special meeting Thursday.

Even with a “fast-paced, intense” project, the “best-case scenario” target date would be September, she said.

“Realistically, it will take a little longer than that,” she said.

Results of a study commissioned by the district show that all elements of the plant could be on district-owned property on San Simeon Creek Road, a critical factor in expediting issuance of multiple permits the project will require.

The project would include a well to take in the brackish water, a treatment plant that uses reverse osmosis, a well to re-inject the treated water into the aquifer and a pond where briny discharge from the plant could evaporate.

The brackish water well is near where the district discharges its treated sewage into the lower San Simeon Creek area, so even after the well water is treated it cannot be fed directly into the district’s drinking water distribution system. Instead, it will be injected back into the aquifer, where it eventually can be used by other district wells once natural elements filter out remaining bacteria.

The September projection is too late for Cambria Community Services District directors, who still are pushing hard for a start date of no later than July 15.

Director Amanda Rice said she had voted in January to approve the emergency desalination plant to ensure the district has water for its customers until the next rainy season. Rice worried about not having a backup plan if the plant won’t be operating until fall.

“Are you kidding me, we don’t have something to cover us for the next six months?” Rice said. “After this presentation, I have no confidence we’re not going to run out of water.”

A July start date is unlikely, District Engineer Bob Gresens said after the meeting, because it will take two months to complete a study tracing how long it takes treated water to travel from the re-injection well to the wells from which the district draws much of its drinking-quality water.

That two-month “travel period” is required under state water regulations due to the presence of some wastewater in the water that will be drawn from the brackish water well.

The district must prove to the state’s Department of Public Health that the treated water will arrive in the area of the supply wells no sooner than 60 days, Gresens said. That requirement allows natural elements in the ground to filter out any bacteriological contaminants in the water.

Garza-Bird defined the new plant as a “permanent emergency water supply” but several board members said firmly it was to be temporary, with aboveground pipes.

The plant could provide about 250 acre-feet of water in a five-month period, Gresens estimated, approximately the length of a peak period in a “normal” dry season. Board President Jim Bahringer and Director Muril Clift emphasized that the project would provide water only for Cambria.


The Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors are expected to consider additional funding for an emergency water supply at their regular monthly meeting at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St., Cambria. For details, go to

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