The Cambrian

Cambria CSD sued over emergency water treatment project

Cambria’s services district has been sued over a nearly $9 million emergency water-supply treatment project that’s set to be completed in about a month.

The lawsuit, filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Tuesday by LandWatch San Luis Obispo County, charges the Cambria Community Services District with violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by rushing into financing and building the plant when, according to the plaintiffs, the situation isn’t really an emergency.

The plaintiff’s attorneys are Cynthia Hawley of Cambria and three lawyers at the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. LandWatch is a not-for-profit organization with a mission to protect the environment and natural resources.

The water-reclamation project is being built on the district’s San Simeon Creek Road property under an emergency permit the county issued May 15. That permit also requires the district to apply for a full coastal development permit, which includes a more complete environmental review. The full permit could allow use of the plant on a more permanent basis.

County planner Airlin Singewald confirmed Wednesday that the district has applied for that permit and the county is reviewing it.

According to the lawsuit, the district “improperly attempted to construct a permanent desalination plant intended for long-term operation under the guise of a temporary emergency facility in order to avoid having to analyze the effects of the project on the environment,” which is required by state law.

The plaintiffs want a court to halt the project, which they maintain has already impacted the environment during construction.

After receiving LandWatch’s lawsuit, the district sent a notice to the media stating that it had “no recourse but to aggressively defend this ill-conceived legal challenge” to a project the district calls critical to “meeting the basic health and safety needs of our citizens” during the historic drought.

The CSD maintains it is complying with CEQA guidelines.

After receiving numerous comments from permitting agencies and individuals, however, district directors last month ordered General Manager Jerry Gruber to negotiate getting a more complete report — a focused or full environmental impact report — about possible environmental effects from the plant, its construction and its operation.

Singewald said Wednesday that, as far as CEQA requirements are concerned, there’s no difference between a focused environmental report and a full one.

The CSD said the Environmental Law Clinic, on behalf of LandWatch, also served the district with a “remarkably voluminous public records request.” Providing those thousands of pages of documents will tie up staff when their time is needed “to deal with this historic water crisis,” the district said.

In the past, LandWatch and Hawley have filed lawsuits and appeals on several North Coast issues, from previous Cambria CSD water-project plans or tests to a winery on Santa Rosa Creek Road, lot-line adjustments by the Hearst Corp., cellular communications towers on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and two replacement bridges on San Simeon Creek Road. According to previous CSD director Greg Sanders, also an attorney, none of those lawsuits against the district was successful.

LandWatch was among the appellants that were successful in getting the California Coastal Commission to overturn county permits for the district to do geotechnical and other testing near the mouths of San Simeon and Santa Rosa Creeks — testing that was preliminary to previous desalination projects.

Opinions from LandWatch and the district differ about the severity of the water shortage. The nonprofit said the district hasn’t yet provided “credible evidence” that the project is necessary to prevent or mitigate an emergency or that “the community will soon run out of drinking water.”

The district’s release states, “The fact that Cambria is in an unprecedented emergency has been recognized by every level of government in the permitting process, from the Governor’s Office to the county of San Luis Obispo.”

The emergency water project

Cambria has had recurring water shortages for decades.

The Cambria Community Services District has tried in the past to build a desalination plant.

The emergency project under construction is designed to treat a blend of salt, fresh and brackish water and some treated wastewater.

The treated water will be injected back into the ground near the district’s well-field production wells.