T he Army Corps of Engineers is in the driver’s seat for subterranean tests to prove if enough seawater can be drawn from under the sand near Shamel Park to supply Cambria’s planned desalination plant.
Cambria Community Services District board members decided 4- 0 April 22 to acknowledge responsibility for the geotechnical and hydrogeologic tests — and environmental-
reporting requirements — belongs to the Corps, which is working under federal regulations and laws. The district also halted district work on a state-level study of the project’s environmental impacts.
The next step is a California Coastal Commission hearing, currently set for Thursday, May 13, in Santa Cruz, which would determine if the project is consistent with federal requirements for such work.
Tom Luster, environmental scientist for the commission, said the
staff report on the hearing should be posted at www.coastal.ca.govby Friday, April 30.
The Corps and the district had been on parallel tracks in preparing environmental studies of proposed temporary wells and soil-sample borings on the beach just south of the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek.
The district’s environmental studies would have had to meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) standards, while the Corps’ report will have to adhere to requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
Luster said differences are subtle between CEQA and NEPA requirements. “CEQA and NEPA look at similar issues: water quality, marine life, public access and recreation, traffic,” he said, adding that they examine the same issues from slightly different perspectives.
Under CEQA, if a project applicant needs commission approval for a project’s permit, the agency can add enforceable conditions to the permission, Luster said. But when the commission issues a ruling on whether a project is consistent with federal NEPA regulations for coastal areas, the agency doing the project “might say, ‘we don’t need to meet condition X because other federal laws prevent that, or because it’s impractical, and here’s why,’” Luster explained. “Then our only other recourse would be to sue them in federal court.”
Usually, he said, commission staff opts instead to negotiate.
“The Corps already has done its NEPA study on this project,” finding there’d be no significant impact to the environment. “We don’t know whether a local or state agency would have come to the same conclusion.
“We still look at all the applicable policies of the Coastal Act ... public access, marine life, endangered species,” Luster said. “We just use a different mechanism in the review. Hopefully, we end up with the same result.”
So why did the services district start its own environmental- review process?
Tim Carmel, district counsel, said, “The board felt it was impor tant to move geotech forward, to not lose any momentum,” in case it was later determined that those district environmental studies were needed.
However, since then, “Army Corps and I have done a fair amount of research. It became real clear it’s an Army Corps study, project if you will … We’re not performing the project, not paying for it, not contracting for anything. The district is neither issuing permits nor does it have any permits for the project.
“For the last couple of meetings, we have continued this item because our counsel indicated he’s in discussion with the Corps about responsibility … (and wanted to avoid) stepping on each others toes,” said Director Muril Clift. “We pay our counsel a lot of money. It’s been my experience in life, when I pay professionals for advice and continue them on the payroll, I’d better take their advice.”
All material, from research to initial conclusions to comments from agencies and individuals, has been or will be forwarded to the Corps, according to Greg Sanders, district board president.
Of approximately 30 people in the audience, seven challenged various aspects of the decision, and three said they supported it. Eight others stood to indicate support when asked to do so by one speaker in favor, and Sanders and staffers said the district had received 53 e-mails, a letter and three other written comments in support.
Director Frank DeMicco called the decision “a delegation of an agency to do the work we want to have done.” He also noted that the final environmental arbiter will be the Coastal Commission.
“We’ve spent a god-awful fortune to try to accomplish … a desal plant,” said Director Allan MacKinnon. “No one has ever shown us a better solution,” and the tests “must be done to determine the viability of desal.”