The Cambrian

Water board prepares cease-and-desist order over Cambria plant

The brine pond on CCSD property off San Simeon Creek Road holds water deposited there by rain in this 2016 photo. Considerably more water has been added to the pond by recent heavy rains.
The brine pond on CCSD property off San Simeon Creek Road holds water deposited there by rain in this 2016 photo. Considerably more water has been added to the pond by recent heavy rains.

Update 10:15 a.m., April 20, 2017

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has formally ordered the Cambria Community Services District to stop putting brine into a holding pond that’s part of the CSD’s Sustainable Water Facility. The district isn’t operating the plant now, because extra water isn’t needed, thanks to heavy winter rains that filled CSD wells and aquifers.

On April 18, the water board sent the district a cease-and-desist order for pond operations. The state agency also sent a separate civil liability complaint, listing 162 newly discovered violations, most of which address the district’s failure to “submit timely self-monitoring reports” required by the waste-discharge requirements order. The complaint includes a recommendation for a penalty amount of $53,596.

Water board staff had warned the CSD in an April 13 letter that the order and complaint were pending.

These actions, as well as violation notices the CSD got from the water board in February, stem from monitoring of the water-reclamation project and a flood of the pond field during heavy downpours in January. Fines for those violations could be in the range of $600,000, although the water board’s enforcement unit hasn’t yet made that monetary determination.

CSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said Wednesday, April 19 that he will schedule a special closed-session meeting to discuss the issue in more detail with his board members.

— Kathe Tanner

Original story

State water regulator staffers are preparing a cease-and-desist order for a troublesome brine-holding pond that’s part of Cambria’s Sustainable Water Facility. The plant isn’t operating now, because municipal wells are full after heavy rainfall this winter.

At the July meeting of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency could consider taking that action against the Cambria Community Services District, according to an April 13 notification letter sent to the CCSD and others by Michael Thomas, water board assistant executive director. However, the water board’s action might be delayed to a later meeting.

The letter also said state staffers are preparing an administrative civil liability complaint that the water board could consider in July or September.

The letter also states that, since a drenching downpour hit the area Jan. 9, there’s been too much liquid in the brine-holding pond (also called a surface impoundment) on San Simeon Creek Road. The complaint relates to violations of waste-discharge requirements and could carry fines of up to $5,000 a day.

Each day of not having enough “freeboard” in the pond could cost the district a $1,000 fine, depending on the water board’s decision. In this case, freeboard is the distance between the top of the pond structure and the level of brine and rainwater contained therein.

Water board and CCSD staffers are to meet Tuesday, April 25, to discuss the letter and the situations listed within it, according to district engineer Bob Gresens.

He said, “Until we have this meeting, it would be premature to respond” in any detail about the water board’s letter. “In general, we have been in communication regularly with the water board on the pond levels and other progress we have been making since the January 2017 flooding across San Simeon Creek Road.”

The meeting between the two staffs was to have happened Wednesday, April 19, but was rescheduled.

This report seriously calls into question the level of competence at our CCSD.

Harry Farmer, Cambria Community Services District director

Several CSD directors responded by email Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, April 16 through April 18, to questions from The Cambrian about the latest missive from the water board.

Greg Sanders, vice president of the CSD board, said in an email interview Sunday that “the district has been in daily communication with the RWQCB since before the notices of violation were issued” in February.

“On only a handful of occasions did the RWQCB staff question the input from the district on management of the problems at the brine pond and compliance with the RWQCB orders. It is, therefore, very surprising that the RWQCB staff would now raise issues regarding compliance with orders related to the notices of violation.

“What does not seem to be taken into account,” Sanders continued, “is the extraordinary series of storms and factors out of the district’s control that resulted in flooding of the brine pond. The district has developed a remedy for that problem,” which involves trucking the excess liquid in the pond to the district’s wastewater treatment plant.

CCSD Director Mike Thompson said, “I would also have thought that if there was an issue with the district’s response over the past two months that we would have been informed before this, especially considering that there seemed to be daily reports from our water staff to the RWQCB.”

Director Harry Farmer said, “This report seriously calls into question the level of competence at our CCSD. In addition, the current and future financial challenges resulting from our Emergency Water Facility should be of major concern to all Cambrians.”

He encouraged all Cambria ratepayers to discuss this report with their friends and neighbors, and then express both criticism and constructive ideas in letters to the editor “and at upcoming board meeting as to how the board and district should move forward.”

Farmer added that “the current and possible future environmental problems presented by this project strongly need to be addressed as well.”


On Feb. 9, RWQCB issued three notices of violation, which could carry almost $600,000 in fines. Those notices were primarily about chronically late reports and failure to meet water-quality regulations. The water board’s enforcement unit hasn’t yet announced any recommendations on those fines or other actions.

The latest water board letter addresses changes that were required by the February action, but which staffers don’t feel have been accomplished yet, or for which the district didn’t provide specific enough answers addressing the issue.

Thea Tryon, senior engineering geologist for the water board, agreed Monday, April 17, that the letter is, among other things, a notification of enforcement actions being prepared, a formal notice of additional violations and informing the district about the inadequacy of some of its responses to the Feb. 9 notices of violation.

“For example, we required a plan to determine the accuracy of the current water-level markings in the surface impoundment’s north berm. That plan was not provided or addressed,” Tryon said.

What does not seem to be taken into account is the extraordinary series of storms and factors out of the district’s control that resulted in flooding of the brine pond.

Greg Sanders, Cambria Community Services District director

Thomas wrote April 13 that “this letter recommends compliance actions, reviews” the CCSD’s official response to official notices of violation issues Feb. 9, “and notifies CCSD of impending formal enforcement.”

The letter also cites “162 newly identified violations” of water board orders controlling how the Sustainable Water Facility plant and the pond are operated. Among those violations are failures “to analyze leachate for pH, temperature and electrical conductivity,” record the flow, maintain the required freeboard, sample previously dry lysimeter for up to 27 constituents, and “failure to design, construct and operate the surface impoundment so as to ensure a minimum 5 foot separation between wastes and the highest anticipated elevation of groundwater.”

The district also waited “a total of 385 days after the installation of a new dechlorination system” at the plant before submitting a properly modified report on that modification.

Tryon said that “these violations were discovered upon our review of the CCSD’s responses to our Feb. 9 notices of violation.”

CCSD board President Amanda Rice emailed that because the agency is “a smaller district with a limited staffing, tight resources and many competing fiscal priorities, I am grateful for the professional oversight and guidance we receive from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and other regulatory agencies.”

Rice said that, after the Feb. 9 violation notices, “I felt encouraged by the general manager’s assurances that the RWQCB concerns could and would be thoroughly addressed and the alleged violations would be cured in a timely manner. I was also assured that similar violations would not occur going forward and that the district would come into compliance with our orders, permits and licenses.

“Our staff has not yet responded to the April 13 letter, other than the GM requesting a meeting with Regional Board staff just after he received” that letter.

“There are still several steps before any specific penalties or a potential cease-and-desist order are issued,” the board president noted. “Once the district receives those formal documents, we will be able to address what direction the board intends for the district to go and how we will set our fiscal priorities.

“As with the Feb. 9 letter, the most recent communication is disappointing, but also helpful. Disappointing because it raises doubts about our GM’s assurances that this is ‘fixable’ and, in spite of the additional efforts of our on-the-ground staff, is evidence of the district’s failure to live up to what this community deserves by availing ourselves of the professional expertise of the water board staff.”

Rice said Tuesday that after the April 25 meeting with RWQCB and CCSD staff meeting, “we will have a clearer understanding of the situation, but I don’t expect this will be considered by the (CCSD) board until the actual cease-and-desist order and penalties are formalized.”

Kathe Tanner: 805-927-4140