Cambria’s water emergency: Don’t be cowed

April 25, 2014 

Given the results to date presented by our consultants for a short-term emergency plan using reverse osmosis on San Simeon Creek, the Cambria Community Services District board should defer pursuing this project and instead implement a simple plan based on conservation to take us through the dry season this summer.

As it is likely that continuing down the path of a brackish-well-based desalination project will not yield a positive result until October at the earliest, the board would be well advised to sequester any further expenditure of precious time and money and implement now an easily understood backup plan.

There is a wonderful old Danish saying that reads “Ingen ko på isen,” which is translated as “there is no cow on the ice.” In other words, don’t worry, as our cow is not out there on the ice. If she were, cows being pretty heavy and ice in Denmark generally thin, it could be a very bad thing indeed. No one needs to be reminded that our water situation is now so dire that we not only have a cow on the ice, but that it could easily be October or November before we could bring her back into the barn.

At their recent presentation the consultants, CDM Smith, outlined the possibility of treating brackish water using reverse osmosis technology from a modular unit, which would then be pumped back up San Simeon Creek and allowed to percolate over 60 days, allowing water to be captured by existing CCSD wells.

This was envisioned with the objective of having supplemental water available by the first of July. Original estimates of the cost were at $40,000 per month for four or five months, using a rental unit. Later estimates were for a somewhat more permanent infrastructure, in the $2 million range. At the meeting the latest rough estimate is now $3 to 5 million dollars, and rising. The cost of operating and maintaining such a facility will be very high, the consultant herself noting the high use of energy involved.

As daunting as the costs might eventually wind up being, the most striking result to emerge from the report was the time it will take to have the project functioning to its purpose. It turns out that under the “best case scenario” that it will not be before September, and “realistically it will take a little longer than that.” Anyone familiar with the way in which bureaucracies and construction projects actually work out in practice, it could easily take us into October, November or later.

In other words, the project is no longer a reasonable short run solution for our present water emergency, or, in the words of one board member, “this is not going to give us water for this drought.” Instead, it has morphed into enacting in haste — without a full cost-benefit analysis — one alternative among several possible longer-term solutions to deal with future extended periods of drought for Cambria.

In organizations this is called “mission creep.”

When faced with this prospect, several board members, certainly in understandable frustration, suggested “calling out by name” the members of the many regulatory agencies which will have to be involved, in an effort to speed up the permitting process.

Yelling at the cow is unlikely to help, probably serving only to annoy the animal.

In this situation, it would seem prudent to take a deep breath, to pull back, reassess and implement an alternative, backup plan — a plan that certainly has a good chance of success. This plan would defer for now the very expensive desalination project, and focus all the community’s efforts on further conservation to get us through the summer. In another Danish proverb, “You need to bake with the flour you have.”

Examples would include reestablishing and strongly committing to the moratorium; assigning the community communications liaison to interface with those on the water wait list, so they will understand the seriousness not only of this dry period, but also of those which may well occur in the future; and assigning the district engineer as his first priority the task of finding available and reasonably priced sources of delivered potable water for the town.

We need also to cancel Pinedorado for this year; to instruct the Cambria Tourism Board to desist at present from promoting tourism; to reallocate tourism board monies to the conservation effort; and to engage the hotels and restaurants for their suggestions on how to conserve even more.

Finally, the contract with CDM Smith should be renegotiated so that their efforts will go to analyzing the easiest, technologically most efficient, lowest cost long term alternative emergency water supply project without prejudice (including a serious cost estimate for off-stream storage), seeking the input from our local ranchers in the process.

Let’s get that cow off the ice.

Stephen Overturf is professor emeritus of economics and a resident of Cambria.

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