With warm, dry weather, a fourth summer of severe drought statewide and the recent extra-busy Independence Day holiday weekend, it’s no surprise that water levels are dropping in Cambria’s municipal wells.
As of readings taken July 7, the average level in the Cambria Community Services District’s wells along San Simeon Creek was 15.61 feet (the wells are considered full when the average of the readings is between 20 and 21 feet.)
The reading on the same day at the SR4 well near Leffingwell High School was 46.60 feet, and in the all-important Windsor Bridge (or WBE) monitoring well, 3.79 feet.
When the level in the latter drops to 3 feet, the district can no longer pump from the Santa Rosa Creek aquifer, according to water regulators and Jerry Gruber, CCSD’s general manager.
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There also are other restrictions on water drawn from wells on both creeks.
Gruber said in an email interview July 9 that he doesn’t plan to ask state water regulators for a variance this year that would allow the district to keep pumping after WBE hits the 3-foot benchmark.
The district asked for and got that variance last year, one of the measures it took to help keep water flowing to ratepayers’ taps. Ratepayers also did heavy lifting by reducing their water use by an exceptional 38 percent in 2014 compared with 2013 use.
Gruber said that when the San Simeon well averages drop to about 8 feet, the district plans to restart the emergency water supply (EWS) plant it tested for three months this year. Going below that level in the wells might make it more difficult to keep salty water and wastewater out of the drinking-water supply.
The well field is alongside San Simeon Creek, not far from the ocean’s shore. The district’s wastewater effluent also is piped to that area to settle into the ground, which then filters the effluent as it flows through the soil mantle above the aquifer.
An aquifer isn’t an underground lake but is instead an area of more coarse, permeable ground through which water can flow from the upper watershed, pooling so it can be drawn through wells.
Some ratepayers have suggested storing more water in portable, temporary tanks for the long, hot, dry summer ahead. Gruber said he doesn’t believe the community needs to have more drinkable water in storage right now.
Gruber said, “Cal Fire is looking into placing a 10,000-gallon tank at the emergency water-supply facility for fire suppression capabilities, if needed. This would be nonpotable water.”
Advice to ratepayers
Meanwhile, the district is caught between the drought and its effects, and a fiscal hard place, because super-conserving customers mean the district receives less income from selling water and providing sewage-treatment service.
Gruber thanked “everyone for their tremendous effort” during the continuing drought.
“I realize this has been extremely hard on everyone,” he said. “That is why obtaining a regular coastal development permit (for the EWS) is so important to our ratepayers.
“I think everyone realizes that rate adjustments in the future, if approved, are a real possibility based on the age of our infrastructure and the need for repairs. I think we have done a really good job in telling the story relating to our infrastructure. Folks want a reliable infrastructure just like they appreciate good streets to drive on.”
District employees continue their quest to lower the level of nitrates in the effluent from the wastewater treatment plant, something state water regulators are requiring.
Be careful what you wish for
Meteorologists are predicting a strong El Niño condition this fall and winter, which could produce heavy rains and strong storms in this area. District officials could be just as concerned about possible flooding and heavy flows into the sewage-treatment plant as they are about effects of the continuing drought.
Both conditions require preplanning.
The wastewater treatment plant “has a fairly comprehensive series of things that they do in the event of heavy flows into the system,” Gruber said. “They focus on operational concerns.”
Heavy flows can cause sewage spills and overflows, which could contaminate creeks, the ocean and the plant itself. Regional water regulators take a hard stance against those situations, often issuing notices of violation and levying stiff fines, as it has against CCSD in the past.
If heavy rains hit while the emergency water supply plant is operating, Gruber said, whether or not to shut down the plant would be a decision for the board of directors to consider.