Faced with three official notices of violation from the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, officials and staffers at Cambria’s services district have been pushing to prove that they’re eager and able to correct the problems that triggered those notices sent Feb. 9.
The issues could cost the Cambria Community Services District about $600,000 in administrative fines, $466,000 of which would be for being late in filing nearly 30 required reports over two years.
However, the water board’s enforcement division hasn’t yet determined whether it will levy those penalties. Jon Rokke, RWQCB water-resources control engineer, said Feb. 14 he didn’t know when that decision would be made.
According to one notice, if the water board sends the matter to the attorney general, the Superior Court could impose civil liabilities of up to $5,000 per day for each violation. One notice said the CSD’s report-filing delays ranged from four days to 71 days.
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The decision on any penalties likely will be based on how regularly and well the district continues to communicate with the water board, and whether CSD staff files complete reports on time in the future, Rokke said by phone.
Last week, CSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said, “We need to do better, and we are doing so.”
In a phone interview Feb. 13, Gruber said, “I don’t expect the community or water board to have absolute and complete faith in us until we prove we are running this facility absolutely the way they want us to do it.”
Most of the regulatory problems stemmed from the CSD’s chronic pattern of missing the deadlines for filing mandatory reports about the $14 million Sustainable Water Facility (SWF).
When that plant is operating, it pulls brackish water from underground, treats and filters it, then reinjects the treated water into the ground to recharge the aquifer and provide additional water to the community. Residual “brine,” or the concentrate left over from the process, is stored in a large holding pond or “impoundment” until it evaporates.
“Things seem to be going better,” Rokke said Feb. 14. “We’ve had lots of communications from them, in fact every day.”
All the required reports have been submitted, he said, and he was cautiously optimistic that others which were to have been completed and submitted by the next day would all be delivered by then, as promised.
The CSD’s tardiness pattern goes back to Feb. 15, 2015, and involves nearly 30 tardy reports due monthly, quarterly and annually, according to one notice of violation (or NOV) from the water board that notes a total of 466 days of being late and in violation.
The district was also late in submitting an important, updated Operations, Maintenance and Monitoring Plan covering operational changes for the SWF.
Rokke said the long time span covered by that NOV is in part because, “initially, we were sympathetic about the enormity of the reporting we made them do. … Their requirements are the most strenuous I’ve ever seen,” and water board staff tried to help ease the burden on the small district. “We want this project to succeed.”
Water board staff regularly reminded the district that reports were due or late, helped eliminate some duplicative monitoring and created a spreadsheet to help the CSD finish the work on time.
However, he said, the district “fell into the pattern of not worrying about getting the reports in on time.” So, the water board had to ramp up its enforcement. The notices of violation were “a wake-up call” that the district wasn’t complying with the water board’s orders.
The good news, Rokke said, is “they don’t appear to have violated any water quality issues … we’ve seen the analytical data for the rainwater-diluted liquid from the brine pond.”
The other NOVs
The second NOV addresses the district’s failure to submit an updated Wet Weather Preparedness Report for the impoundment or pond. The report was due Oct. 1; the water board received it Feb. 2. The maximum potential civil liability for that late submittal is $124,000.
The third NOV addressed the district’s failure to “properly communicate significant non-compliance issues associated with the surface impoundment.” That notification is supposed to happen within 24 hours.
For instance in January, flood water from a neighboring property flowed over San Simeon Creek Road and onto the CSD’s property, eventually flowing into the pond twice. Heavy rains also filled the pond higher than allowed, because the district must keep a certain amount of “freeboard,” or area between the water level and the top of the pond.
“Freeboard is designed to assure the water (brine) never spills out of the pond,” Rokke said. If the brine escapes, it likely would flow downhill “into the creek or the lagoon,” where it’s not supposed to be.
The flooding itself was a problem, Rokke said, but the issue was that district officials didn’t notify the water board quickly enough about the problem.
That situation also triggered a sharp rebuke to Gruber in the Feb. 9 NOV cover letter from Michael Thomas, the water board’s assistant executive officer.
Water board staff first learned of the flooding from Cambria citizen Tina Dickason, who had called another staffer to discuss that and other concerns, as she does regularly.
At the Jan. 19 district board meeting, Gruber said “it gets old” having Dickason taking pictures of the SWF and sending them to the water board. That practice “wastes a lot of our time. It wastes a tremendous amount of Regional Water Quality Control Board staff time.” He said the situation “borderlines harassment” and that water board staffer “have better things to do than to be Tina Dickason’s servant.”
Rokke said some startled water board staffers had been listening to the live streaming of the meeting, and heard Gruber’s statements. Others have reviewed the taped comments.
Thomas said firmly in the letter that water board staffers “do not agree with your representation of our position regarding information we receive from Ms. Dickason or other members of the public. We value the information and reports we get from citizens, and we request that you publicly retract your statements. Please do not characterize water board staff’s position in this manner or speak for water board staff in the future.”
Gruber said he will apologize.
“I completely understand where the regional water board is coming from,” he said Monday, Jan. 13, and he has vowed to quickly correct the operational problems that caused the delays in reporting and other situations.
For instance, he said, some reports were submitted late because information from a lab was overdue, or because that data hadn’t been incorporated into the reports in a timely manner by the consulting firm.
Now, Gruber wants to find another lab, and he wants to transition away from that consultant and do the reports in house, so the district is “in absolute control and take ownership of these reports, ownership and accountability for them,” he said. “I think that will resolve a lot of the issues.”
I don’t expect the community or water board to have absolute and complete faith in us until we prove we are running this facility absolutely the way they want us to do it.
Jerry Gruber, Cambria CSD general manager
To make that happen, Gruber said, the CSD probably will hire another employee, whose job will be primarily dedicated to the SWF. At the moment, those duties fall to John Allchin, who also is the supervisor for the district’s wastewater treatment plant, with the help of consulting firms.
Doing dual jobs can cause problems, especially when there’s a crisis. For instance, during the flooding incidents at the SWF’s brine pond, Gruber recalled, the district also was experiencing very high flows into the wastewater plant. He said the CSD has a “severe intrusion and infiltration” problem caused by extremely high water tables, a situation that demands a lot of attention, tending and juggling by staff.
As Gruber explained in an email, the district normally produces about 300,000 gallons per day of potable water. During the heavy rainstorms, the wastewater plant was receiving about 2 million gallons of water daily, so a lot of liquid was entering the wastewater system that should not have been doing so.
Changes to pond, brine disposal
District officials plan to eventually repurpose the brine pond into a freshwater holding area, once the SWF’s environmental impact report is approved and the CSD has an approved permit to operate the plant on a permanent basis, as needed, rather than only during declared water emergencies.
Gruber said he’s working on a plan that, when the plant is operating, would have about 20,000 gallons of brine per day trucked to the San Luis Obispo South County Sanitation District.
He said that disposal plan would “cost $112.50 per 1,000 gallons, or approximately $2,250 dollars per day of operation,” not including fees paid to a trucking firm doing the hauling.
Gruber has paid to the South County district a $10,000 bond, $425 application fee and $500 for an annual permit fee. He also provided brine-sampling data and said officials there believe “all of the results fall within the limits of their permit.”