Local drought-relief projects costing $13 million move forward

Five drought-relief projects costing nearly $13 million may bring emergency water to some of the most vulnerable communities in San Luis Obispo County by next year.

Topping that list are Cambria and San Simeon, which face drastic water shortages. Cambria is expected to run out of water as early as October if rain doesn’t fall and needs a temporary brackish water treatment plant to avoid a disaster.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved applying for state grants to cover the bulk of the $13 million cost for the five projects, four of them in the North County.

However, what should have been a routine matter turned into a controversy because one project will allow surplus water from Nacimiento Lake to be piped to the Chorro Valley west of San Luis Obispo.

North County Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Frank Mecham questioned the logic of taking water from an area facing a water emergency and transporting it south of the Cuesta Grade. Last August, supervisors declared the 505,000-acre Paso Robles water basin to be in a crisis and enacted emergency restrictions on new pumping.

“It is inappropriate to talk about taking water from the North County and shipping it to the South County a year after declaring a water emergency in the Paso basin,” Arnold said.

Supervisors approved applying for $10 million in state emergency drought funds by a 3-2 vote with Mecham and Arnold voting "no."

An identical 3-2 vote to approve a budget adjustment of more than $88,000 for the Public Works Department failed. Public Works needs the adjustment to cover unexpected expenses incurred planning the drought relief projects. Budget adjustments require at least a 4-1 vote.

It is now up to the Public Works staff to find other funding sources to cover the $88,000. Mark Hutchinson, Public Works administrator, said he does not anticipate a problem because there are several other general fund and flood control accounts that could be tapped for the money.

“We will present several options to the board at an upcoming meeting,” he said.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson defended the controversial Nacimiento Lake project because it would give key county offices on Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo, including the County Jail and the Sheriff’s Office, a backup source of water that would be used only during an emergency.

The project calls for installing a new pipe, called an intertie, to connect the existing Nacimiento and Salinas pipelines. Lake Nacimiento has 6,000 acre-feet of unallocated water that could be used in an emergency.

“The intertie is the only prudent thing the county can do,” Gibson said, noting that only projects that can be planned and built quickly would qualify for the state grants.

The deadline to apply for the state emergency drought grants is July 21. The grants are expected to be awarded in the fall with construction beginning next April. The other drought relief projects the county will apply for are:

  • Construction of a 2.5-mile water line providing emergency water to Santa Margarita from Atascadero at a cost of $2 million.
  • Installation of a pipe to divert water from the Nacimiento pipeline and deliver it to Heritage Ranch to be used in emergencies at a cost of $150,000.
  • Installation of a temporary brackish water treatment plant for the Cambria Community Services District at a cost of $5 million.
  • Installation of a network of pipes to deliver recycled water for non-potable uses to the San Simeon Community Services District at a cost of $1.7 million.