Cambria businesses got some relief and ratepayers some more sticker shock Thursday at a meeting of Cambria Community Services District directors.
Cambria businesses and residential customers faced billing surcharges starting at 500 percent for excess water use, under restrictions that took effect March 1. But now, starting May 1, what counts as excess use for businesses will change according to the month, allowing for seasonal fluctuations, instead of a flat yearlong average.
Costs for an emergency water supply project on San Simeon Creek Road could go as high as $5 million to $7 million, said district Engineer Bob Gresens. “We may be able to rein in that cost next week. It might be back down to $4 million,” he added,
In January, initial estimates of the project cost ran a bit above $2 million. As late as last week, the upper end was put at $5 million.
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The district has about $3.2 million in its cash reserves. Its annual budget runs about $9.2 million.
Gresens estimates the district currently has between 440 and 550 acre-feet of water available in the district’s two aquifers to last it through the end of the dry season.
The district used 336 acre-feet in May to October last year, and 409 acre-feet the year before. In 2007, when district water use was the highest over the last 10 years, May to October usage totaled 420 acre-feet.
Faced with prospect of exhausting its water supply, the district board Thursday unanimously approved spending up to another $920,000 on the next phase of work on the emergency project, on top of the $500,000 it authorized in January.
Gresens said the additional funding pays for permits, installing two wells (one injection well to put treated water into the ground not far from the district’s existing production wells on San Simeon Creek, and a monitoring well to see if the water’s progress to the production wells is consistent with the 60-day travel-time mandate of water quality regulators), conducting a tracer study to determine how long it takes the water to make the trip, and preliminary design.
Gresens said the final steps, final design and construction, would require additional funds.
When the district imposed what it calls Stage 3 water restrictions on Jan. 30, it said all residential users need to cut usage to about 49 gallons per person per day and commercial users had to use 20 percent less each two-month billing period than they used in an average two-month period over the prior year. Both restrictions were effective at the start of the March-April two-month billing period.
Businesses, especially restaurants and motels, protested that averaging over the course of a year did not account for the seasonal ebb and flow of business, since Cambria is visited by far more tourists in summer than in other months — meaning businesses would be slammed by heavy surcharges during what are usually their most profitable months.
Using the yearlong average, in the “summer months, I’d have to reduce (water usage) by 50 percent, and it will cost me great amounts of money,” said John Mackinnon, proprietor of Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill. “It would cost me close to $30,000 in fees. We’ve done a lot to conserve. … We're still talking savings of 20 percent.”
“We’re doing the best we can to control our water consumption,” said Kim Eady of Cambria Shores Inn. “We are all over our hotel guests. We tell them at check in, we monitor it. We send our laundry out.”
Part-time residents and vacation rental owners also bid for water allocation adjustments, but directors voted 4-0 – with board member Jim Bahringer recusing himself, since he co-owns a bed and breakfast – to only change the commercial account allocation for now.
While the calculation of allowed water use will be on a month-to-month basis, based on the average use over the prior three years, billings will continue to go out bimonthly.
The proposed residential allocation increase had been requested primarily by owners of second homes, who weren’t allowed to adjust their allocations based on occupancy numbers, and by vacation rental owners, who said they couldn’t operate profitably in summer on the current allocation of four units per billing period, or 49 gallons per day per residence.
Director Amanda Rice said loosening allocations would “not look good,” while the district is telling regulators “we’re in an emergency. We’re out of water.”
Rice also asked staff to come up with a backstop plan, such as buying water from ranchers, in case the town’s supply runs out before the emergency project is up and running.
Tribune Assistant City Editor Bert Etling contributed to this report.