By Kathe Tanner
For the past four years, Cambria’s services district has wanted to test and measure water and sand near the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek, to determine if enough salty water could be drawn from beneath the shore to supply a desalination plant. But the district’s been unable to get permission for those tests from several of the agencies that control the areas.
The plant would be a drought-proof alternative supply of water for the town of about 6,000.
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Now, there’s another potential problem for the planned desalination-related testing. Last year, the data-collecting tests were halted within a State Parks nature preserve around the creek, in part because, according to Public Resources Code 5001.8, motorized vehicles aren’t allowed in those kinds of highly protected areas.
The Cambria Community Services District and Army Corps of Engineers redesigned the plans to include fewer tests — taking samples of sand from drilled holes and sound measurements in the sand to determine how deep it is — in the area below the mean high tide line, away from the preserve.
It’s apparently a circular problem: State Parks and State Lands might not issue permits for the tests because the agencies don’t know the full scope of the eventual desalination project. And the district can’t design the project without having the test results.
Also, the “Corps is wrestling through to get (the project) on the California Coastal Commission’s agenda,” according to Bob Gresens, the district’s engineer. Last May, commissioners approved a more extensive test plan partially within the preserve, but in 2007 had turned down an earlier project proposed near the mouth of San Simeon Creek, saying other alternatives must be explored first.
Gresens said that, during an official comment period that ended June 20, environmental studies of the testing project had triggered about 307 comments in 22 letters.
State Lands Commission
A State Lands Commission’s official notified the district and Corps that State Parks not only controls the natural preserve on land and the Cambria State Marine Park at sea, it also shares jurisdiction with the commission over the water and ocean floor for “1,000 feet waterward of the ordinary high-water mark to enforce its rules and regulation.”Therefore, commission staff “strongly recommends” that the district and Corps consult with Parks on the project and about doing such tests within the marine park, which includes waters off the end of the creek.
The issue surfaced in a June 20 comment letter from Cy Oggins, chief of the commission’s environmental planning and management division.
Oggins noted that his response was submitted barely under the wire because the commission hadn’t been officially notified of the environmental studies when all the other agencies were, and only learned of the plan when Army Corps’ subcontractors applied for State Lands’ permits to do their work.
Nick Franco, superintendent of State Parks’ San Luis Obispo Coast District, said July 28 that, for now, “I don’t see any red flags with the proposed investigation they’re working on. However, with the long-term project,” which might include permanent, subterranean intake and outflow facilities, “there are clearly some red flags. The question is, is this investigation pointless in the long run? We don’t have that question answered yet.”
Part of the problem, Franco said, is “there isn’t a defined or proposed project,” for the desalination plant itself. “But any sort of development that close to the preserve is clearly an issue, regardless of what the development is.
“Secondarily, we have long-term issues with having intake and discharge facilities within the marine park,” he said. “Until we have the details of what’s actually being proposed, we can’t say if there is and isn’t an issue.”
“The area they’re investigating is a very sensitive area. That’s why it has the preserve designation, because of the condition of the Santa Rosa Creek watershed and the creek, the way it flows into the ocean,” Franco explained. “There are not a lot of high-quality habitats left where creeks enter the ocean. This one is pretty intact and really in fairly nice shape. It’s one of the few in California that is, and we want to keep it that way.”