Revised proposal for Nipomo water pipeline is moving forward

Nipomo Community Services District leaders are moving ahead with revised plans to build a pipeline to bring water to the community from Santa Maria, just a few months after local property owners voted against paying for the project.

The new proposal is to build the project in phases, which would reduce the initial cost but still bring additional water to the community.

Nipomo district officials say they don’t plan to go back to property owners to pay for the phased approach. But district customers could pay more for water in the years ahead, if the project proceeds and Nipomo starts buying water from Santa Maria.

Voters sent a clear message in May when they rejected a plan to fund construction of a $26 million pipeline by raising property taxes through an assessment district, said district general manager Michael LeBrun.

But the district board remains committed to the pipeline plan, unless a better and faster alternative is found.

Shortly after the vote failed, the board commissioned a study to see how the pipeline could be built in phases.

It also formed a committee to re-examine ways to bring more water to the community. The Supplemental Water Alternatives Evaluation Committee will study and rank potential alternative projects, from the pipeline to desalination to tapping into the State Water Project.

The committee’s report is not expected until early next year. District officials said they would not move forward with construction of a phased pipeline project until the board hears the report.

“If the committee comes up with something that’s better, cheaper and faster than the phased approach, then we’d take their assessment and go with that,” board member Ed Eby said.

But if the committee concludes the phased approach is best, then the district hasn’t lost time it could have spent working on the project, he added.

In the meantime, the district is moving slowly ahead on a phased approach to the pipeline.

The district board voted 4-0 on Sept. 12, with board President Jim Harrison absent, to amend an already existing contract with AECOM Technology Corp. to finalize the design of the first phase of the project.

The board had previously authorized $129,715, but the funds weren’t spent because design work was put on hold in 2011. The amended contract brings the total up to $219,691.

If the committee finds another project would be a better alternative, and the board agrees, then work under the contract would be suspended, with AECOM paid for all work done to that date, LeBrun said.

The first phase would connect a pipeline to Santa Maria’s water system, install it across the Santa Maria River and connect to the community’s water system. It would deliver 645 acre-feet of water a year.

By comparison, the original pipeline project was designed to bring 3,000 acre-feet a year. (An acre-foot of water generally serves one to two households per year, depending on landscaping, location and family size.)

The second and third phases would eventually increase the pipeline’s capacity to bring the full amount of water to Nipomo from Santa Maria.

Most of the costs for the first phase of construction — estimated at $14.2 million — would come from state and district funds. LeBrun will also reach out to several other water purveyors on the Mesa to see if they’ll join the project.

He said three water companies — Golden State Water Co., Rural Water Co. and Woodlands Mutual Water Co. — agreed to purchase a portion of the supplemental water as part of a stipulation that resulted from the settlement of litigation over water rights in the Santa Maria groundwater basin.

District officials have long held that Mesa property owners must reduce their dependency on the underground aquifer, which is the area’s only source of water, and spearheaded the project to construct the pipeline and pay Santa Maria for additional water.

Nipomo services district staff and board members say the pipeline was necessary to reduce the area’s dependency on its only source of water, and to prevent saltwater intrusion —the pollution of a freshwater aquifer by seawater creeping underground and moving inland.

But those opposed to the original pipeline proposal argued against some of the district’s conclusions, including its theory over saltwater intrusion and its urgency in building the pipeline.

After the assessment vote failed, the Nipomo district stopped processing new applications for water service. The district board is scheduled to revisit that decision in October.