Correction: Because of a database error in San Luis Obispo's billing system, an earlier version of this story misstated the estimated amount of water that the city's second Quiky Car Wash would use. An analysis of five comparable car washes in town shows they use an average of 63,568 gallons per month, or about the same amount as 11 homes in the city.
A new Quiky Car Wash is nearly complete in southwestern San Luis Obispo, but the owners’ plans to use groundwater to wash vehicles has become a point of contention while city leaders discuss any water rights the city might be giving up in transferring ownership of a 26-year-old on-site well.
Hamish Marshall, vice president of property owner Westpac Investments, said he expects the new car wash to open around Feb. 20 at 1460 Calle Joaquin, near the intersection of Los Osos Valley Road. A grand opening would follow around the first week of March.
“It doesn’t keep us from opening; it just costs us more money,” said Marshall, noting the car wash could use potable city water instead. “It’s simply that city water is very expensive. It’s potable water — to be using potable water on cars when we have the ability to use nonpotable water on cars seems a little silly.”
The city installed the well in 1989 and hasn’t used it in more than 20 years. Staff hasn’t found a record of an agreement allowing the city to install the well on that property, City Attorney Christine Dietrick said earlier this week.
The city has no ownership interest in the well or property, according to a Jan. 21 letter from attorney Roy E. Ogden of Ogden & Fricks, which is representing the property owners, and Quiky intends to start using the well water with or without the city’s cooperation.
The letter also warns that if the San Luis Obispo City Council doesn’t approve a quitclaim deed — used to transfer ownership of real estate — at its next meeting, Quiky will initiate litigation against the city and submit a formal claim for damages.
The City Council asked Jan. 19 for more analysis in a future closed-session meeting on whether the city has any water right that it might be forgoing by relinquishing the well and its infrastructure, Dietrick said. That meeting will take place Feb. 2 before the council’s regular meeting.
Board members of local nonprofit Central Coast Grown have raised concerns that groundwater pumping could jeopardize the water table in that area and note the well was forced to shut down more than 20 years ago because of groundwater contamination.
The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission approved a use permit for the Calle Joaquin car wash in November 2014, the same year that Westpac bought the property, Marshall said. The site has previously been occupied by Denny’s and Zaki’s Waffle House.
Westpac also owns the Quiky Car Wash, which uses potable water, on Broad Street. The water is recirculated, said Marshall, estimating that about 80 percent is recycled and used a second time.
The plan all along was to use groundwater for the Calle Joaquin car wash, though it could use potable city water or connect to the city’s recycled water, also known as “purple pipe.” The city does not use groundwater as a potable water source.
One of the conditions of approval is that the owners disconnect the well from the city’s municipal water supply system.
Aaron Floyd, the city’s deputy director of water in the utilities department, said groundwater cannot currently flow into the system because the valve connecting the well’s pipe to the city’s system is shut, though Westpac would be required to physically separate the pipe and cap it.
Any groundwater used for the car wash would be discharged into the city’s sewer system after the owners test the water, obtain a discharge permit and conduct any treatment deemed necessary before the water leaves their property, Floyd said.
There are 14 wells in the city that discharge into the city’s wastewater system, he said.
The city was in the midst of a severe drought when it drilled the well in 1989, desperate for water.
In 1990, according to The Tribune’s archives, the city pumped 1,770 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is about 325,851 gallons, or enough to generally serve about three households per year.) And businesses near the intersection of Los Osos Valley Road and Highway 101 — the same vicinity as the new car wash — started sinking.
Former Public Works Director Dave Romero said at the time that the ground level dropped as much as 10 inches in some areas. The sinking damaged businesses and led to a lawsuit, where the city was held liable in inverse condemnation (the taking of property by a government agency) to the property owners.
In 1993, the well was shut down because of groundwater contamination with PCE (tetrachloroethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent also known as perchloroethylene) and nitrates.
“We don’t know the extent of that contamination, but if the car wash is going to use the water and pump it back into city water supply or into the ground, that isn’t a very good idea,” said Wendy Brown, a Central Coast Grown board member.
The organization leases land for City Farm, a 20-acre urban farm on the Calle Joaquin Agricultural Reserve.
Crops there are irrigated with groundwater from the same aquifer that the car wash could access, board member Brian Engleton added.
The amount of water that the car wash would use, however, is a fraction of the amount the city pulled out of the ground 26 years ago.
City staff said the estimated water use is about 63,568 gallons per month, or about the same amount as 11 single-family homes in San Luis Obispo, based on the average amount of water used by five comparable car washes in the city.