Viewpoints, especially about the future of an emergency water supply project under construction, are apt to vary substantially at an election forum Sunday, Oct. 5, involving five candidates (including a prospective write-in contender). They’re seeking two seats on the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors.
The election could affect the future of that nearly $9 million project because two challengers have indicated they prefer other options.
Candidates include incumbents Jim Bahringer and Michael Thompson and challengers Richard Hawley and Jeff Hellman.
Steve Kniffen, manager of the Sea Chest Oyster Bar and chairman of Cambria’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Commission, says he also intends to run but as a write-in candidate. Kniffen said he’ll also seek a seat on the Coast Unified School District Board of Trustees. He was a write-in candidate for both boards in 2012, but as of Tuesday, Sept. 30, he hadn’t yet signed up as one with the county’s Election Division.
The Cambria CSD serves about 4,000 customers with water, sewage treatment service, parks, trails, open space, fire protection and public safety services.
The district’s mid-year operating budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year includes about $8 million in income and $9.2 in expenditures. General Manager Jerry Gruber estimated after a Sept. 25 meeting that the district has the equivalent of 27 full-time employees.
Many voters in the district are apt to cast their ballots with one issue in mind: Water.
In January, the CCSD board declared a Stage 3 water-shortage emergency, which includes the most stringent restrictions, such as strict water allocations and a ban on irrigating and other outdoor uses of district water. Ratepayers whose water use exceed their allocations pay surcharges.
The district increased water rates in September to pay for the emergency water project.
Many district customers have been reusing shower and sink water and taking shorter, less frequent showers. Some have been hauling in irrigation water from a local ranch. Others have simply let their plants die.
But their efforts have paid off: Water use has dropped by at least 40 percent during the past five consecutive months.
The Cambrian submitted five questions to each of the candidates seeking a seat on the board and received the following answers.
Why are you running for the office? If you are a challenger, why do you think you’ll be a good director? If you’re an incumbent, why do you think you are a good board member and should retain your seat on the board?
Jim Bahringer: The board has some unfinished business when it comes to providing water security for Cambria. I want to help complete that job. I intend to seek additional funding from California’s Drought Initiative and from federal funding sources to improve environmental protection measures and efficiency of the advanced water treatment plant now under construction. I am a big proponent of storage, yet professionals have determined that this brackish water reuse project is the best choice for the long term. I recognize that studies completed by experts have merit and do not place personal prejudices ahead of what is in the best interest of the community. I am seeking a second term because I want to act now to assure a reliable water supply for Cambria.
Richard Hawley: After observing the current CCSD board’s actions in recent years, a pattern became clear. Community members who took time off work, or from their busy schedules, almost always had their concerns ignored. Often they were treated with disrespect. I decided people who participated in democracy deserved to have their questions answered, and to be treated with dignity. I will always serve the people and not the staff. I will protect rate dollars from misuse, question expenditures and contracts, and be the voice of the people and not special interests. I am a communicator, not a pontificator.
Jeff Hellman: I have been following the board for years and feel that the board has not acted judiciously on many issues. They have been swayed by special interests. They have squandered funds. They have implemented misguided and inconsistent policies that have left the community without a dependable and affordable source of water.
I would be a good director because of decades of business experience, and I have no special interest or agendas other than public service. I will not flip-flop on decisions, and will make decisions that will benefit the community as a whole and not a special few.
Michael Thompson: In the 2010 CCSD election, as the leading vote-getter, I was able to bring together a broad coalition of Cambrians: Republicans, Democrats, independents, working families with young children, small businesses and employees and people just concerned about the quality of life in this community. I am viewed as a consensus-builder and pragmatic problem-solver, rather than a single-issue ideologue. I bring a diverse professional background to the board, including criminal justice executive, small business owner and years of involvement with youth baseball and soccer programs. I’m a Navy veteran and proud vice commander of the Cambria American Legion Post 432.
Do you support the district’s emergency water-supply project and efforts to make it permanent? If so, why? If not, why not, and what would you recommend that the district do instead?
Bahringer: Yes. Reduced withdrawal from San Simeon Creek is good for the environment and our upstream agricultural neighbors. Water security during drought is good for the health and safety of everyone who lives here.
Hawley: Which emergency plan? The $1.5 million one, promising water by July 1, 2014? Then yes. The one with a starting cost of $13.4 million, financed by huge water rate increases, with health and environmental risks and no provable expectation of water until mid-2015? Then no. We were manipulated into a massive public works project using “bait and switch” tactics. Many Cambrians feel impatient watching their rate dollars fly away, not only on this project but on ridiculously high salaries, lobbyists, information spinners and other wastes. I recommend the $1.5 million option for emergencies and off-stream storage for long-term use.
Hellman: I support the effort to have an emergency water supply project. It remains to be seen what the actual project will be when five state agencies weigh in to secure permits for a permanent facility. My first preference was for storage, either a reservoir or a pipeline to Whale Rock, with desalination or advanced water treatment as a backup for emergencies and prolonged drought. If mitigation and operational costs are excessive, we should have storage first and desalination or advanced water treatment for emergencies and prolonged drought.
Thompson: For more than 20 years, Cambrians have been thwarted in their efforts to obtain an alternative water source by a series of endless studies and the stall tactics of a vocal minority. Once construction of the Emergency Water Supply project is complete pursuant to the emergency permit, the project will be permanent, which is one of the advantages over mobile units, easier to finance and provides a longer-term and more stable solution to our chronic water shortages. Any suggestion that building a storage reservoir is a viable alternative in extreme drought is pure folly. What would you put in it?
Do you support the recent rate increase, and would you vote to approve another one?
Bahringer: Bartle Wells conducted an extensive examination of water rates required to properly run the water and wastewater departments without subsidy. They also explored potential rate increases needed to support debt service on funding the advanced water treatment plant. The board selected the most progressive rate structure recommended, including lower rates for low water users and escalated charges to discourage water wasters. Businesses now pay more, as their use is determined by connection size and is tiered for volume. Any future rate increases will allow a subsidy for low-income earners as recently allowed by SB936. That legislation also allows limits that landlords can pass rate hikes on to low-income renters.
Hawley: I do not support the recent rate increase because we were told the project would cost nearly $10 million less. The plan changed behind closed doors. I won’t vote for additional rate increases until we: fire the Army Corps of Engineers; eliminate the public relations officer position; extinguish contracts with lobbyists; hire qualified people to fill positions that remain vacant through mismanagement; reduce the unjust water rates on small business owners who only have a toilet and sink. The working-class people are tired of subsidizing corporate interests and consultants who keep feeding off our tax revenues.
Hellman: I do support the current rate increase and would approve another one with the caveat that we communicate with and have the approval of the public, that we spend our money wisely, and do everything possible to be as efficient as possible. The reality of climate change will mean water will become more and more precious and therefore more expensive in the future. We can mitigate some of this burden by capturing as much water as possible, and recycling and reusing things like gray water. If we are careful with our spending, we can minimize our costs.
Thompson: While nobody wants to pay more for anything, together with 80 percent of Cambria’s ratepayers, I supported the rate adjustment, which was necessary to finance the emergency water supply project. In setting the rates, the board did what it could under the law to minimize rate increases for individuals least able to absorb them, such as low water users likely on a fixed income. Any potential future rate adjustments will be based on identified project-specific needs and submitted to the ratepayers for approval.
If you’re elected, what would you add to or delete from the board’s current goals and objectives, and why?
Bahringer: The first two goals I proposed in February were to develop an alternative water project to protect the community during drought and to examine water rates — goals that we have achieved. Installation of infrastructure for community use of the East Ranch has remained elusive due to the distraction of the three-year drought. I will make that a priority, as well as finding funding for build-out reduction, forest management, and water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
Hawley: I would delete the idea of long-term desalination. There are less expensive water projects, and everyone knows it. Everyone knows that off-stream storage is far less expensive, and I support that effort. I would add enhanced water conservation using purple pipes to deliver highly treated reused water for irrigation. I would add management of our Cambria forest, which most Cambrians agree is a high priority. I would improve the CCSD’s communication skills with our ranching and farming community. We must formulate a water budget, and I would add a significant rainy-day fund to our long-term financial health.
Hellman: Rather than be laser focused on desalination or advanced water treatment, and preoccupied with intent-to-serve letters, I would have a multipronged approach to securing water. Storage, efficient use of water and capturing of water should be added to the mix, ensuring existing customers have adequate water before considering water for new development. The mandate of the board is to provide water for existing customers. I will respect that mandate. A citizens advisory committee should be organized and utilized in major decisions.
Thompson: Completion and operation of the emergency water supply project should be the first, foremost and only goal and objective of the board for the foreseeable future. National Weather Service forecasters say severe drought or worse will continue into next year. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say the chance of a “megadrought” has increased to 50 percent. Completion of the emergency water supply project is within reach this fall. No more studies, no more stalling. It is time to get the job done now, for the well-being of our children, families and community.
Name one decision the CCSD board made in the last year that you dislike, why do you dislike it, and what would you have done instead?
Bahringer: Hard decisions were needed under emergency circumstances. I made them and stand by them. Once the advanced water treatment plant is up and running, we will make improvements to monitor and support protection of the environment and reduce operating costs. Storage is the next hill to climb. We have bladder storage options that do not require major permitting hurdles, and we need to complete Fiscalini tank replacement and repairs. Aquifer recharge pilot projects by farmers on Santa Rosa Creek offer exciting options with fewer regulations and at less cost in the near term. It’s been a pleasure to serve the community, and I look forward to continuing the momentum that we have begun.
Hawley: That’s a hard question, because there have been so many. Giving away Santa Rosa Creek water normally used in October is the most reckless decision the board made. This water giveaway went on for four months, seven days per week, 24 hours per day. Giving away water during a CCSD-declared “emergency” is wrong. I would have accepted the ranching community’s offer of water and thanked them for helping us. Instead, the CCSD board and general manager ignored the offer of water and put the community and our groundwater in harm’s way — at risk of seawater intrusion.
Hellman: Voting to issue intent-to-serve letters during the worst drought on record was wrong. The board should have focused on conservation, which would have been immediate and effective. Right now, well levels are normal due to conservation. That means the advanced water treatment plant did not have to be rushed, even steamrolled through, without approvals from state agencies, and we could have financed the project with a bond issue, not a “sale installment agreement” that mortgages our infrastructure to a bank whose parent company is in Arizona.
Thompson: As a director and past president of the board, I stand accountable for all decisions made during the past year. One of the most difficult, and which I regret having to make, was the decision to restrict the use of potable water on outside irrigation. I know how Cambrians value their plants and gardens, and it pained me to make that decision. However, as outside irrigation constituted some 30 percent of potable water usage, this was the only way to achieve the level of conservation necessary until the emergency water supply project becomes operational.