The Cambrian

Cambria district approves water rate hike after protest fails

Directors of Cambria’s services district have approved higher rates to pay for an $8.8 million emergency project to supply sorely needed water during droughts.

A typical single-family home using about 6,000 gallons of water every two months would see its bill increase to $85.02 from $48.02 while the project is not operating and to $109.02 when it is being used.

But in order for the project to move forward, directors on Aug. 4 will review a proposed construction contract and consider approving an $8.944 million financing package with Western Alliance Bancorp to pay for construction and the rest of the project’s expenses.

Directors also will discuss where district customers can obtain nonpotable water for non-crop irrigation and other purposes now that the district has temporarily shut down the main source, a well on the Rodeo Grounds property. The district has applied for a $3.75 million grant that could offset some of the water-supply project expense and presumably lower the just-raised rates a bit. The district needs another rate hike to cover current expenses, but wouldn’t legally be able to apply funds from this increase, according to district counsel, because the rationale for the rates was based solely on project costs.

Depending on when it rains again, the project — which would use three different purifying processes, including reverse osmosis, to filter brackish water — may not be online in time to cover the gap between how much water the district has and how much the scientists are estimating it will need.

Customers have done an exceptional job of cutting their water use — in June they saved 44 percent over the year-earlier period — but no one knows for sure whether that will be enough to stretch out the current supply.

“I’m really proud of the community,” district General Manager Jerry Gruber said Tuesday. “What they’ve done is really unbelievable.”

In January, the district declared a Stage 3 water-supply emergency, the most severe possible, and imposed strict water allocations.

Since then, Cambrians have been taking shorter and/or fewer showers or baths, flushing less frequently, using buckets of sink water for their gardens or toilets and irrigating plantings with nonpotable water hauled in from district and other sources (See article on Page 3.) Commercial accounts also have had to cut back.

When the district was able to alternate between its two supply aquifers, water levels in the wells were holding up fairly well. But District Engineer Bob Gresens expects that, when the drop occurs, it could be precipitous and quick, based on previous data. There are signs, he said July 24, that the drop could be imminent.

The town’s water-supply situation is complicated by several factors, including a 67-day tracer test that’s underway and could determine whether the project will work according to state water regulations.

During that test, the district isn’t supposed to draw water from one of its two primary water sources, wells along San Simeon Creek.

However, drawing water from the other source, wells along Santa Rosa Creek, also is problematic. That’s because levels in a crucial monitoring well on the lower reach of the creek have been dancing around the “no, you can’t” level of 3 feet above sea level. That state restriction is designed to protect the aquifer and the habitat for endangered and threatened species.

CSD officials have asked that the state lower that restriction level to 2 feet for 180 days, to allow the district to complete the test and weather the construction period for the plant.

Another factor is converting the permit being sought from an emergency one to a permanent one, which controls when the plant could be operated. But five state and federal overseeing agencies have raised objections — and the district needs four of them to sign off on the conversion.

Gruber said he believes they’ll collaboratively resolve the issues, perhaps with some additional mitigations.

The rates

Directors approved the higher rates after a protest against them failed. Protest Official Anthony Mejia, the city clerk of San Luis Obispo, said July 24 that 800 valid protests were submitted, including 32 that couldn’t be validated by the time the district’s five directors returned at 7 p.m. from a closed-session meeting.

There were 73 duplicate protests and 63 others that were invalidated.

For the protest to have succeeded, 1,970 of the district’s 3,938 customers (50 percent plus one) would have needed to file official protests.

Nearly 200 people attended the meeting, although many had left by the time the protest vote results were announced around 7 p.m.

Board President Jim Bahringer noted that the result “sends a strong signal that a lot of people are sincerely against this proposition,” making it incumbent on the board to give them more information and persuade them of the project’s value.

Mark Kramer, who supports the emergency project, calculates that “if we look at the incremental cost of $37 per billing period (from $48.02 to $85.02) for a two-person family using 8 units of water every 2 months, that will equate to $222 per year, which represents an affordable price if you treat the added cost as additional insurance to provide water to the community if the drought continues.”

If and when the district activates the plant to provide more water, Kramer said, “We will pay an additional $12 per month or $24 per billing period ($109.02 minus $85.02). The district estimates it will cost about $350,000 to operate the plant for six months, the average length of a Cambria dry season.

“I feel that it is cheap insurance,” Kramer said. “Most homeowners last year paid more in their property tax bill for the 2002 bond for the new grammar school: We paid $271.10 last year.”

Other people say they are adamantly opposed to the project, or confused about it. Some of them spoke July 24 about their concerns for the environment and endangered species, the viability of the project plan, how rapidly costs have escalated from original estimates of about $1.5 million, impacts on the State Park and other protected areas, and the water supply project’s conversion from a temporary, emergency project to, as Gruber defines it, “a permanent facility to be used under emergency conditions on a temporary basis.”

Tina Dickason said a rancher’s offer to sell the district a 30-acre box canyon for a reservoir that could hold 600 to 700 acre feet of water “is a win-win this could be up and running in two years” with very few environmental issues.

That project would “never create the problems you’re having with this project,” she said. “I’m asking you to close off this project. We’re not against water; we’re against harming the environment.” She urged district officials to examine the reservoir proposal, which Gruber said they are doing.

Meeting on Aug. 4

What: Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors meeting

When: 12:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 4

Where: Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St.

Agenda: Board is to consider next steps toward an $8.8 million emergency water supply project.