Test wells approved for Cambria

California Coastal Commission members agreed 8-1 Thursday that the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to punch temporary test wells into a Cambria beach — a crucial step toward installing a desalination plant at another location — is consistent with federal and state coastal regulations and can proceed.

Test results are expected to determine if the Cambria Community Services District can draw enough seawater from under the shore near Shamel Park to supply a desalination facility. Permanent intake wells and the actual plant will be subject to a separate environmental review.

According to the district, that review will include consideration of two sites for the plant, one near the district’s sewage treatment plant less than a third of a mile east of Shamel Park, off Windsor Boulevard at Heath Lane, and the other more than 2 miles north on district-owned property near San Simeon Creek.

Preliminary testing plans call for drilling up to 10 holes on the beach south of Santa Rosa Creek’s mouth. Up to three of those holes would be converted to test wells. Another two monitoring wells would be put in near each test well. The wells would be removed after about 14 months.

Installation and removal of the wells is expected to take a total of four to six weeks. Installation of the wells would put at least three vehicles on the beach, according to the commission staff report: a drill rig about 41 feet long weighing from 17 to 26 tons, a 40-foot pipe trailer weighing about 19 tons and a pickup truck.

The Army Corps, which is managing the federally funded testing, is supposed to ensure the wellheads remain buried under beach sand after installation.

Commissioners, meeting in Santa Cruz, agreed with two staff-recommended conditions on the work and added a third:

• Work on the beach cannot begin until Sept. 1 and must be done by the end of October, during a time when a nearby estuary is at its lowest levels of the year, minimizing potential impact on fish, birds and other biological resources;

• The Army Corps must test water in the test wells before beginning test pumping for more than 100 contaminants, including methyl mercury; it must not proceed with the tests if contaminants exceed established criteria, and test the water again after test pumping; and

• Levels of the closest area of surface water in nearby Santa Rosa Creek must be monitored during test pumping.

“We’re hopeful, but you don’t know what’s down there (under the sand) until you go look and until we get the test results back,” Greg Sanders, district board president, said after the meeting. “I think we’ll know fairly soon if the soil material below the beach is permeable enough to draw seawater (through).”