The Cambrian

Cambria services district pays $53,596 in water board fines

The Cambria Community Services District can’t operate the Sustainable Water Facility until issues with the brine pond are resolved to the water board’s satisfaction.
The Cambria Community Services District can’t operate the Sustainable Water Facility until issues with the brine pond are resolved to the water board’s satisfaction.

Cambria’s services district directors agreed to pay $53,596 in state water board fines, rather than seeking a hearing on those penalties, according to a closed session vote on April 27.

That was just one of several updates provided by Cambria Community Services District staff members, directors and counsel during the board’s regular open meeting that convened immediately after the closed session.

The fines settle an April 18 civil liability complaint filed by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of several official actions taken this year by that water board against the CSD’s reporting violations about and operation of the Sustainable Water Facility (SWF) on San Simeon Creek Road.

The complaint said the district failed to submit timely self-monitoring reports as required by both the water board order and a revised monitoring and reporting program.

The district could have been on the hook for nearly $600,000 in penalties, as outlined in the water board’s February notice of violations to CCSD.

And, according to Thea Tryon, water board senior engineering geologist, some of those additional penalties still could be levied.

Tryon said in a May 2 email interview that the water board’s complaint “alleges six of the 33 late reporting violations. The proposed administrative civil liability amount ($53,596) was assessed from the six late monthly reports” during specific time periods.

“All violations not alleged in the complaint are still subject to potential liability,” Tryon wrote. “The Central Coast Water Board retains its authority to assess additional penalties for violations of requirements for which penalties have not yet been assessed or for violations that may occur in the future.”

CSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said in an email interview Tuesday, May 2, that the $53,596 check was drawn that day on the Sustainable Water Facility’s capital improvement account.

The pond

Another issue is the SWF’s impoundment basin, a holding pond containing leftover brine from plant operations and rainwater from winter storms. The pond has too much liquid in it, according to water board orders for the plant. There’s simply not enough “freeboard,” or spare space above the water level in the pond, which means a heavy rain or natural disaster could conceivably cause the diluted brine to overflow on the ground, into the aquifer beneath the pond and the creek beyond it.

In a continuation of agency response-letter ping pong that began after the Feb. 9 missives from the water board, Gruber said he and district engineer Bob Gresens are “almost finished” drafting its latest answer, which includes a plan to reduce the brine/rainwater level in the pond by trucking the excess to the CSD’s wastewater treatment plant.

The Central Coast Water Board retains its authority to assess additional penalties for violations of requirements for which penalties have not yet been assessed or for violations that may occur in the future.

Thea Tryon, Central Coast Water Quality Control Board senior engineering geologist

The CSD is submitting that plan to the water board, to make sure all the specifics and procedures in it meet the state agency’s requirements. The water board has already indicated verbally that the trucking plan is its preferred method for dealing with the problem. “As soon as we get that permission, we’ll start lowering that level,” Gruber told his board members.

However, in an April 17 email, Tryon told The Cambrian that the water board “can’t specify how CCSD comes into compliance with their permit. We have answered questions from CCSD regarding various approaches for removing the water in the pond so they can meet the freeboard requirement.”

SWF and EIR

Meanwhile, the SWF is idle, in part because the district’s wells and the aquifer that feeds them are full after an extremely rainy winter. However, according to an April 18 cease-and-desist order from the water board, the CSD cannot operate the plant’s water-reclamation process as it is currently configured until issues at the brine pond are resolved.

The plant’s long-awaited environmental impact report, with responses to the many comments filed about it, is supposed to go before the CSD board for a hearing “no later” than May 30 or 31, according to Gruber and board Vice President Greg Sanders. If the directors certify the report, and the county Planning Commission approves it, the SWF could get its permanent permit to operate any time, rather than just during declared emergencies.

However, the Planning Commission’s decision could be appealed to the county supervisors, and from there to the state Coastal Commission.

Ultimately, if the plant’s application gets approval from all of the above, the troublesome pond would be converted to hold fresh water rather than brine, and the brine would be trucked to a disposal site.

Chief plant operator

In a related matter, the district is finalizing a job description for an as-yet unrecruited chief plant operator for the SWF. The job would pay a salary of $75,213 and, with benefits, would be worth $106,384 a year (rather than a much higher figure mistakenly listed in the April 27 staff report on the position’s salary range).

Gruber said filling such a position is “difficult” these days, even with the district offering a comfortable salary and generous benefit package. “It’s an exceeding competitive market right now, especially in the water and wastewater industries,” he said, and Cambria’s “remoteness and the expense of living here” increase the difficulty.

The vote to approve the salary range was 3-2, with board President Amanda Rice and Director Harry Farmer voting no. Rice said, “I support the position. I do not support the process that's been taken to get here.”

If you go

The Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors will discuss the agency’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2017-18 at a special meeting that starts at 2 p.m. Thursday, May 4, at the Veterans Memorial Building. The preliminary budget includes more than $5 million in expenses in the general fund, more than $2.1 million in the wastewater fund and $3.4 million in the water fund, not including operational costs, if any, for the Sustainable Water Facility.

  Comments