California Coastal Commission members voted 8-1 on May 13 to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to drill on the county-owned beach in front of Shamel Park and the adjacent, State Parksowned beach by the Santa Rosa Creek Natural Preserve in Cambria as part of the process leading to a future desalination facility. The U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, state Fish and Game, the Native American Heritage Commission and the county Air Pollution Control Board expressed environmental concerns in letters to the Cambria Community Services District. Agencies were concerned that significant impacts to the environment may be unavoidable when drilling is combined with desalination.
The Department of the Interior said “impacts arising from the activities related to the full build-out of the water diversion and desalinization infrastructure should be evaluated.” The regional manager of the Department of Fish and Game stated the “project description has not been adequately characterized” and “ the project does not qualify for a no-effect determination.”
By withdrawing from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, the district avoided answering citizen and agency comments, evading full environmental review under CEQA.
Cambria’s drilling project allows a drill rig about 41 feet long weighing from 17 to 26 tons, a 40-foot pipe trailer weighing about 19 tons, ATVs and a pickup truck to drive through the county park, past the only public children’s playground in town, and onto the public beach twice daily for up to two months. Up to 1,000 feet of 2-to 6-inch diameter PVC pipe will be buried 3 feet below the sand in nine locations on the beach by Santa Rosa Creek, a high energy beach where the creek changes course and sand levels rise and fall many times during the year.
Citizens were successful in reducing potentially significant environmental impacts of this project. Several new restrictions and timelines were applied to the drilling project, including monitoring Santa Rosa Creek levels while the pumping occurs. Concerns and questions remain regarding negative impacts to endangered species, county and state permits for park and beach access, air quality impacts and cultural heritage site disturbance. Generator and construction noise levels during the well installation will be considerable.
Wellhead pipes buried just below the surface of the sand could be exposed, posing a safety hazard for beachgoers and wildlife. Toxic mercury contamination remains a critical threat and health hazard if unearthed in drilling samples.
Cambrians themselves have never voted on desalination. Total costs for desal
and build out reduction are estimated at $58 million. Costs to run the plant and future water and sewer rates increases are still unknown. Water alternatives are listed in the Water Master Plan that are less environmentally damaging and less expensive.
Similar to the waiver of environmental review given to British Petroleum for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the Army Corps of Engineers granted themselves a “categorical exclusion” from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Within hours, 400 residents signed petitions and wrote letters opposing drilling on the beach in front of Shamel Park and the Santa Rosa Creek Natural Preserve without full environmental review. Locals want to see environmental laws enforced and supported to the fullest extent, not subverted in last-minute maneuvers by clever politicians.
Mary Webb is a resident of Cambria. Editor’s note: A CCSD advisory mail-in ballot in 2000 included non-resident commercial property owners paying CCSD bills and up to 800 lot owners on the CCSD “wait list” for water meters. Of 7,846 ballots, 5,108 were returned, with 58 percent in favor of pursuing desalination and 42 percent opposed.