Because the wet 2016-17 winter dowsed Cambria with more than 35 inches of rain, directors of Cambria’s services district indicated officially March 23 that the five-year drought is waning, if not yet completely ended.
With a 3-2 vote, the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors lowered its drought declaration to a “Stage 2 water shortage emergency condition” from Stage 3, the most severe level. For three years, the Stage 3 declaration had imposed many restrictions on how residents and businesses could use their water, and how much of it they could use.
While some restrictions remain in force, because they’re either codified in the district’s water code or are imposed under the governor’s statewide drought declaration, the CSD board’s vote negated the penalties that give local restrictions the clout to force people to conserve water.
Board President Amanda Rice and Director Harry Farmer voted no.
District counsel Tim Carmel and the item’s staff report said that, under a Stage 2, customers can irrigate landscaping and use tap water outdoors as and when they want, including the previously banned refilling pools, fountains and decorative water features.
Under a Stage 2 declaration, the district also cannot use its approximately $14 million Sustainable Water Facility (SWF). To do so, Carmel said, the CSD would have to “start over” in declaring a new Stage 3 emergency.
As required by the emergency permit to operate the water-reclamation plant, the district applied for a regular permit that would allow SWF operations at any time. But getting that new permit is not expected to happen quickly or easily. As part of that process, the district and various community members are anxiously awaiting receipt of the project’s environmental impact report, currently expected to begin administrative review this spring.
At the March 23 meeting, board members mulled over the possibility of dropping any drought declaration now, but decided that would send the wrong message to ratepayers and state regulators.
The directors are to reconsider the situation in May and/or June, when they expect to have a better idea if the town’s wells and the aquifers that fill them are full enough to carry the community of about 6,000 residents through the summer and fall dry season.
Director Jim Bahringer’s original motion March 23 had been to remove any drought declaration at all. During about an hour of back-and-forth discussion and motion tweaking, board Vice President Greg Sanders acknowledged the validity of Director Mike Thompson’s previous reluctance to lower or remove the water-shortage emergency declaration ahead of the state’s removal of drought restrictions.
“It’s as much as anything a matter of optics,” Sanders said. “We certainly don’t want to give the impression that we’re in the business of wasting water.” But above and beyond the state’s ongoing restrictions, “the water conservation efforts of this community speak for themselves.”
When district officials warned in 2014 that the community could run out of water before the end of the dry season, Cambrians buckled down and cut their water use by nearly 40 percent that year. Water use in the community has risen somewhat since then, but most townspeople continue to conserve.
Rice said before the March 23 vote she would have preferred to wait until May or June “when we know better what the rain” situation is and the staff report on the item could include more precise data backing up the changed status “as an extra bolster to the clearly wet weather.”
Farmer said the lifting of surcharges and penalties that are part and parcel of a Stage 3 declaration “is not a wise idea. If people are not responsible with their water usage and feel they can use any amount of water that they want because they can afford to pay for it, they should pay a penalty.”
When a reporter asked Gruber March 27 if the board could release intent-to-serve letters for new home construction while under a Stage 2 condition, he said he hadn’t had an opportunity to review that aspect of the change with Carmel.
At the meeting, directors unanimously delayed any decision on the draft Local Hazard Mitigation Plan until the Cambria Community Healthcare District board can decide if their desire to have that agency included in more detail in the plan is strong enough so they’ll authorize paying to have consultants revise the plan with those additions.