Cambria seeks county, state help for swift drought relief

State Office of Emergency Services representatives visit the town to understand its severe water shortage

betling@thetribunenews.comApril 21, 2014 

Without a new source of water, “we have a real possibility of running out of water,” Cambria Community Services District General Manager Jerry Gruber told state officials gathering information on the drought’s effects Friday, April 18.

CCSD is seeking help to obtain county and state permits quickly on an emergency water source; elements include: a desalination water treatment plant, a lined evaporation pond for the discharge from the plant and a new well that would be used to inject the treated water into the ground near San Simeon Creek.

The treated water can’t be used directly after filtration since the well it will come out of is in an area where the district has discharged treated wastewater for decades. It’s estimated 5 percent of the water will be wastewater so, even after filtration, it will be put back into the ground in a spot where it will make its way to the district’s existing well field further up San Simeon Creek.

Just as they would in any natural disaster, the bevy of state emergency and other officials descended on Cambria to assess the situation and gather information so they’ll know how best to help various agencies cooperate to alleviate the situation. But this time, instead of rolling in after a fire, earthquake, flood or tsunami, the disaster is a still-unfolding drought.

“It’s a disaster in slow motion,” said Ron Alsop, the San Luis Obispo County emergency services manager who helped coordinate the one-day visit. “We opened the line of communications, the ‘aha’ factor … we’ve been pushing up the chain how serious the situation is, and that popped Cambria up to the top of the list.”

The visitors said they’ll take the information back to Sacramento, where it will help inform discussions during weekly meetings of the drought task force appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“We’re here ‘ground truthing,’ ” said Stephen Sellers, an assistant director with the state Office of Emergency Services. “We need a good understanding of what’s going on on the ground so we can do advance planning with other agencies.”

Sellers was among about 20 people assessing the drought’s impact in both Cambria and San Simeon on Friday. Both communities were selected because they’re among the most affected in the state.

Besides state, regional and county emergency services representatives, those participating included officials from the state Department of Public Health, state Department of Water Resources and state Coastal Commission, as well as county officials including Supervisor Bruce Gibson and Cambria services district directors Jim Bahringer and Muril Clift.

“Time is more valuable than money right now,” Bahringer told the gathering. ““We’re the ‘e’ in ‘OES.’ … We have an emergency need to supply our customers. … compressing the permit cycle is the most important thing you could do for this community.”

“Our real need is expediting permits,” said Clift, one of the Cambria district directors. “We’ll just have to finance it ourselves if we have to.”

Permitting may easier, and funding available, after an emergency bill takes effect July 1, said Kurt Souza, a regional sanitation engineer with Carpinteria office of the state Department of Public Health. He encouraged local officials to submit comments during the current public review period to shape guidelines that will guide distribution in $200 million in bond funds authorized by voters as part of Proposition 84 in 2006.

Current guidelines include four main points: to increase water reliability, assist in conservation, reduce “ecosystem conflicts” and “provide regional drought preparedeness.” Cambria’s project aligns with the first three points, but would only provide water for Cambrians.

Besides the desalination, or reverse osmosis, plant, the Cambria services district is also working to bring back online a well on the Santa Rosa Creek aquifer that was taken offline more than a decade ago for fear its use would worsen a spill of the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) underneath a Cambria gas station.

That well, now thought to be safe from contamination, should be available for use around July 1, after iron and manganese filters are ready to treat the water, according to District Engineer Bob Gresens.

That should supply enough water to tide the district over until the new plant on San Simeon Creek is ready — hopefully before the district runs out of water in mid-October or Nov. 1, according to Gresens.

San Simeon also hurting

In San Simeon, visiting officials learned that lack of an adequate water supply forced the district to impose a moratorium preventing any new building more than two decades ago. 

San Simeon Community Services District General Manager Charlie Grace said the district doesn’t have enough storage or water pressure to meet fire-fighting standards. 

Low well levels early this year allowed seawater to intrude farther into the district’s aquifer, causing chloride levels to spike from the prior levels of about 30 milligrams per liter to about 1,200. Use of a Hearst Ranch well allowed the district to blend in purer water and drop the level to less than 300, but Grace is “nervous about July and August” and warned the district would be “in dire straits in October.” 

If it had the money, Grace said, the district could install a distribution system to make better use of its new water recycling equipment, which treats wastewater to the point where it can be used for nonpotable purposes, including landscaping and clothes washing. Currently, most of the water that could be recycled is dumped into the ocean. If it could be used, for example, at the local coin laundry, that would reduce use of precious potable water.

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