California Coastal Commission members agreed 8- 1 on May 13 that Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to punch temporary test wells into a Cambria beach — a crucial step toward installing a desalination plant at another location—is consistent with federal and state coastal regulations and can proceed.
Test results are expected to determine if the Cambria Community Services District can draw enough seawater from under the shore near Shamel Park to supply a desalination facility to be located elsewhere. Permanent intake wells and the actual plant will be subject to a separate environmental review.
According to the district, that review will include consideration of two sites for the plant, one near the district’s sewage treatment plant less than a third of a mile east of Shamel Park, off Windsor Boulevard at Heath Lane; and the other more than 2 miles north on district-owned property
near San Simeon Creek.
Preliminary testing plans call for drilling up to 10 holes on the beach south of Santa Rosa Creek’s mouth. Up to three of those holes would be converted to test wells. An additional two monitoring wells would be put in near each test well. The wells would be removed after about 14 months.
Installation and removal of the wells is expected to take a total of four to six weeks. Installation of the wells would put at least three vehicles on the beach, according to the commission staff report: a drill rig about 41 feet long weighing from 17 to 26 tons; a 40-foot pipe trailer weighing about 19 tons; and a pickup truck.
The Army Corps, which is managing the federally funded testing, is supposed to ensure the wellheads remain buried under beach sand after installation.
Commissioners, meeting in Santa Cruz, added two staff-recommended conditions on the work and added a third:
•Work on the beach cannot begin until Sept. 1 and must done by the end of October, during a time when a nearby estuary is at its lowest levels of the year, minimizing potential impact on fish, birds and other biological resources;
• The Army Corps must test water in the test wells before beginning test pumping for more than 100 contaminants, including methyl mercury, not proceed with the tests in contaminants exceed established criteria, and test the water again after test pumping; and
• Levels of the closest area of surface water in nearby Santa Rosa Creek must be monitored during test pumping.
Fifteen members of the public addressed the commission during the hour and a half hearing, with six opposing the testing and nine favoring it.
Mahala Burton said the beach area “will remain forever an inappropriate site,” and said she had presented a petition signed by about 400 people who oppose the tests.
Richard Hawley said “heavyweight” consultants have said for years that environmental concerns at the site “were too great, because of potential impacts to water levels in the coastal lagoon and the creek.”
Catherine Ryan Hyde highlighted effects to Cambria’s only child-oriented public playground and park, saying “What person in their right mind would bring their children to this park, knowing these many-ton drilling rights would be going right by them?”
Deryl Robinson of United Lot Owners of Cambria said “doomsday scenarios” are designed to “create fear” because of a “desire to not have Cambria change.” He supported the testing.
Michael Dill of Paso Robles said if Cambria has about 6,800 residents and 400 opponents signed a petition, that left about 6,400 who could be in favor of the project.
Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director, said he and his agency have been “concerned about the adequacy of water” in Cambria for years. “There may be a need for a desalination facility, but that’s an issue for the services district to decide,” he said.
He added that when commissioners turned down in 2007 a similar test project near the mouth of San Simeon Creek, “we had significant problems with the site and where the desal facilities would go. We don’t see the same situation here … there are no big red flags and bells that go off in our minds” about the Santa Rosa Creek site.
If the tests prove sufficient water flow and quality, the Corps will have to design the facility, federal and state-level environmental reports will have to be prepared and approved, and Congress will have to appropriate the rest of $10.3 million it has approved.
“We’re hopeful, but you don’t know what’s down there (under the sand) until you go look, and until we get the test results back,” Greg Sanders, district board president, said after the meeting. “I think we’ll know fairly soon if the soil material below the beach is permeable enough to draw seawater (through).”