The Cambrian

Cambria water plant faces challenges on two fronts

Cambria’s new emergency water supply project (EWS), which is in a three-month testing period under an emergency permit granted by the county, is confronting challenges from two different directions — a state water agency’s Feb. 27 notice of violations at the plant and a March 10 hearing about a separate lawsuit that seeks an injunction to halt EWS test operations until an environmental impact report is completed.

Meanwhile, the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) water-reclamation plant continues to operate under the emergency permit. 

On March 3, according to staff, only one of the five brine-dispersal blowers was spraying mist over the waste-holding pond, a 7 a.m.-to-5 p.m. process that’s designed to hasten evaporation of the leftovers from treating brackish water with reverse osmosis, filtration, ultraviolet and chemicals.

Regional water board 

On Feb. 27, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a notice of violation and request for information from the district about recent operations at the emergency project that treats brackish water to make it drinkable, to fill the gap between how much water the community uses and how much rain Mother Nature provides during droughts.

In midyear amendments to the district’s 2014-15 budget (unanimously approved by directors on Feb. 26), the emergency water-supply project now is estimated to cost nearly $12 million, including several additions required by the regional board.

According to the water board’s notice of violations, the services district must submit by March 27 a formal response to 11 violations, plus three technical report requirements.

Those violations focus on: Operations of a large holding pond for the brine, including the blowers; having chlorine and other elements not allowed in “mitigation” water sent to San Simeon Creek lagoon to increase dry-season water levels there; how and where that mitigation water is delivered to the lagoon and erosion at the discharge location; having blower mist drifting away from the pond area, where it’s not supposed to be; and monitoring, record keeping and reports due to the water board.

In a March 3 conference call with district engineer Bob Gresens, district spokesperson Tom Gray and The Cambrian, General Manager Jerry Gruber said the district’s permit requires that mitigation water not be delivered to the lagoon when the creek is flowing. Plant operators stopped delivering that water — which isn’t supposed to contain any added chemicals — from the plant to the lagoon about 10 a.m. Feb. 10, according to Gresens. A dechlorinating system is being added to the mitigation water line.

District officials responded to the violation notice with a media release March 3, noting the areas where the EWS was “at least temporarily” out of compliance, but stressing the collaborative relationship between the water board and the district. The release emphasized that corrections to some of the issues had already been made and other procedures were being changed. 

Gruber said in the conference call that some of the blower problems stemmed from having “the water level in that pond too low,” so pumps, which are supposed to float while pulling the bring into the blowers, were instead drawing brine from the bottom of the pond. That thicker blend was “clogging blower nozzles and other apparatus.” Operators now are “allowing the water level to come up higher,” so the heavier brine elements can settle to the bottom of the pond and the pumps can float at the top.

The men said the knottiest problem to solve may be making changes to the current permits. For instance, any modifications to the “treatment train” would trigger the need to amend the district’s Title 22 permit, which can be a lengthy, complex process. 

The regional board was a crucial player in the district’s ability to get the project online under the emergency permit, without yet having those detailed reports about what the environmental impacts might be. The reports are being prepared now, as part of an after-the-fact coastal development permit application, required if the application is to fulfill California Environmental Protection Act regulations and allow the plant to operate in the future.

Regional board “staff bent over backwards to help us get the permits,” Gruber said. The regional board issued the project’s final 11th-hour permits, or “orders,” on Jan. 16. Four days later, the plant went online for its three-month test run.


The other challenge comes from the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School, which filed a lawsuit in October against the district, contending it hadn’t complied with state law in pushing the project through under the emergency status. CCSD based the emergency necessity on the district’s calculations that the town might run out of water and the governor’s declaration of statewide drought. 

The clinic’s lawsuit is to be heard by Judge Ginger Garrett in Paso Robles on Tuesday, March 10.

The lawsuit to “stop the project from operating until the district does the environmental-impact report and figures out how it will run that thing so it’s environmentally protective,” lead attorney Deborah Sivas of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School said in a phone interview March 3.

The project was “so hastily conceived and constructed, with no normal review. It just got jammed through” the emergency permit process, she said. “We’re not trying to get them to unconstruct the project … but obviously the waste pond is not a permanent answer” to disposing of the brine. 

The district has no need to operate the plant now, she said, because water-supply aquifers on San Simeon and Santa Rosa creeks are full. “I’ve heard them say ‘we need to work the kinks out,’ … but there’s no reason to work the kinks out now.” 

If the drought continues into its fourth year, Sivas said, the district could do the test run this summer, when it may need to run the plant to provide water to the town. “In that case, I think our clients” at Landwatch San Luis Obispo County “would not be opposed to running the plant under close scrutiny.”

While Sivas recently amended the lawsuit to include as respondents the county, governor’s Office of Planning and Research and State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water, she said she’s not sure whether they’ll pursue those claims. “We’re looking forward rather than looking back. … In my view, they (the other agencies) were duped by the district into various approvals and concurrences.”

Meanwhile, Sivas continued, “the plant is built, obviously. The issue is how they’ll come into compliance with the law.”