Once a month, Charlotte Gorton drives to a city-owned well and pumps about 800 gallons of water to haul to her property on O’Connor Way, just outside the northern city limits.
The water isn’t used to sustain lavish landscaping or fill decorative fountains or ponds; it is used to take showers and flush toilets.
Gorton is one of many people struggling with the drought who have become dependent on a nondescript well on Prado Road that has long provided nonpotable water for construction purposes in San Luis Obispo.
The city had planned to shut down public access to the water on July 1 because it became evident that the water was being hauled to areas outside of city limits — against the city’s original intent.
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However, after learning of the severity of the situation for many of those people pumping water there, it became clear that simply shutting off access to it would have unintended dire consequences, said Carrie Mattingly, utilities director for the city of San Luis Obispo.
The two wells on Gorton’s property, somewhat shallow because of the volcanic composition of the surrounding soil, are unable to keep up with daily domestic use.
“We depend on that water,” Gorton said. “It has been a fact of life for us for over 10 years. For people like my husband and myself, it would be devastating if they shut it down.”
In the late 1980s, during the last drought, the San Luis Obispo City Council authorized drilling several exploratory wells.
At that time, the well at the city’s Prado Road corporation yard — where city public works, maintenance and utilities operations are located — was drilled and designated for use by public and private construction projects as a way to prevent potable water from being wasted. The city pays for the pump’s electricity and maintenance.
In the past nine months, from October 2013 to June 2014, 17.24 acre-feet of water has been pumped from the well, averaging about 2 acre-feet a month.
By comparison, a household uses about half an acre-foot of water annually.
Mattingly did not have past water use figures immediately available but said it is clear that use has gone way up. A recent survey found that people from as far away as Cambria and Paso Robles were getting water from the well.
So are people who live just outside of San Luis Obispo’s city limits but within the city’s sphere of influence in the Edna Valley in the south and the southern Foothill area at the northern edge.
“We don’t want to harm people, but we also can’t allow this water to be trucked all over the county,” Mattingly said. “We are working through solutions to what is clearly a Catch-22 situation in this extraordinary drought; we don’t want unintended consequences by shutting off the well, like people stealing potable water from fire hydrants, which has happened in other jurisdictions.”
Gorton said that she and her husband, Mark Jorgeson, have looked into the possibility of drilling a deeper well, but there is a waiting list of more than year for most well drillers.
There is also the financial risk that it won’t work.
“We know of some people who have gone deeper over the years and didn’t come up with anything,” she said.
When she heard that the city might shut down the Prado Road well, she asked the county whether there were any similar resources available to no avail.
San Luis Obispo has an existing permit program for recycled water that allows people to use recycled water from several designated hydrants throughout the city.
Mattingly said a similar program may be developed to manage use of the well — specifically during drought situations. She hopes to have a solution in place within the next month.
“This is a very serious situation, and we plan to proceed carefully,” Mattingly said. “But if it gets untenable out there, I won’t be left with a choice.”
Gorton said she would be more than willing to pay a fee to have access to the water.
“I understand the technicality of needing to take care of the people in the city,” Gorton said. “I’m not asking for anything extraordinary, I’m just trying to survive.”