Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said Cambria water policy reversals took place about four weeks apart (in August, September, October), not over a period of four weeks. Another policy change came in January.
Water — or the lack of water — dominated a candidate debate Monday between incumbent District 2 county Supervisor Bruce Gibson and challenger Muril Clift, a Cambria Community Services District director.
A nearly full house of about 70 people turned out for the debate at Santa Rosa Catholic Church in Cambria sponsored by the North Coast Farm Center, a branch of the county Farm Bureau.
The agriculture-focused debate clearly demonstrated the differing governing philosophies, including over such issues as the county not changing Cambria’s growth rate from zero to 1 percent.
On June 3, voters will choose which of the men will represent District 2 on the Board of Supervisors for the next four years. The winner must secure a majority vote or the election heads to a runoff in November. With only two candidates, though, a runoff is unlikely.
As Gibson put it during the debate Monday, the Cambria services district’s situation is “a potential out-of-water emergency, a slow-moving but emerging emergency” with the possibility of “turning open a tap and not having drinkable water come out.”
Clift said the actual work of putting in place an emergency water-supply project should take “about six weeks to get it up and running.” The district has been working on getting an emergency brackish-water desalination plant operating as soon as possible.
Clift said Monday that the district has elements of the project, such as a well-driller, poised and ready to start as soon as the lengthier aspect of the project — getting the permits — is complete or at least underway. He wants the planning process, which normally would take 18 months “scrunched into three or four months.”
He also said “lack of political will to implement the solutions” and a “vocal group with friends in the county and state basically stopped any movement forward” on a permanent desalination plant or other water-supply solution over the past decade.
Gibson, in turn, said Clift and his services district peers lacked “direction, focus and leadership” in anticipating and handling the water crisis.
Despite warnings from farmers and some community members last summer about a pending drought, the district tried to get county support for changing Cambria’s allowed growth rate from zero to 1 percent so the district could approve new water connections, Gibson said.
To illustrate his belief that the district’s actions were confused and unfocused, Gibson recalled that directors in August discussed how many new water connections the district could serve; four weeks later, declared a water shortfall through the summer and fall, prompting a ban on using tap water for outdoor irrigation; in another four weeks, allowed ratepayers to use district water on landscaping once a week; and in January declared a drought-triggered water emergency with strong restrictions and steep surcharges.
Gibson initially focused on his ties to audience members, many of whom were ranchers, farmers or people who live on rural properties.
“I’ve lived a lot of the issues we’re going to talk about,” he said. Gibson grows citrus on 170 acres in Cayucos, and about 25 years ago, “I was chest high in a field full of artichokes,” on a Cambria farm owned by his parents, Jack and Jane Gibson.
Clift opened with a brief rundown of his own history and a description of why he chose to run against the man he had once supported. As Clift told a reporter before the debate, Gibson “didn’t help us.”
Clift told the audience he was disappointed by Gibson’s “need for total control” and his “smart growth” approach that “has become absolute, total ‘no growth.’ It makes it impossible for districts to finance infrastructure without putting a lot of financial burdens” on ratepayers.
MORE DEBATES TO COME
District 2 supervisorial candidates Bruce Gibson and Muril Clift are also due to jointly appear:
• From 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Morro Bay Veterans Memorial Building, 209 Surf St., Morro Bay. Hosted by the Latino Outreach Council;
• From 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, May 12 at the Cambria Connection, 870 Main St., Cambria. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County and the University Women of Cambria.