If there was an overriding theme for 2015’s news on the North Coast, it was Mother Nature, from myriad effects after another consecutive year of punishing drought to an El Niño weather/warmer Pacific waters condition that promised heavy storms and rainfall, but didn’t deliver much through December.
Here’s a look at what’s next for the North Coast’s top 10 stories of 2015:
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The first full week of January brought wind, lightning, thunder, hail and inches of rain to the North Coast, but no, that won’t end the damaging four-year drought, according to scientists and forecasters. They say the state and Central Coast have been so dry, so long, that even a few months of deluges won’t end the woes caused by too little rainfall for so many months.
According to the Dec. 29 U.S. Drought Monitor website for California (http://bit.ly/1cFJhZQ), San Luis Obispo County was still shown as being in the most severe “exceptional drought” category. About 44 percent of the state was in that category.
The state, county and Cambria Community Services District all are under drought-emergency declarations.
County supervisors’ Dec. 15 “drought conditions” report showed Cambria as having received 12 percent of its average annual rainfall of 22 inches.
The current set of storms will add to that, but forecasters have said it would take several years of normal or above-normal rainfall to counter damage done by the drought.
Supervisors will get their next drought report at their meeting Tuesday, Jan. 12.
In a meteorological double whammy, the North Coast and much of the state have gone this week from dry, dry, dry to El Niño drenched, as had been predicted. As of early Wednesday, Jan. 6, a set of storms had doused the North Coast with several inches of rain, the most to fall within a brief period for some time, with more to follow. Other storms appeared to be setting up for the next week.
The classic El Niño weather pattern, triggered by warmer-than-usual water in the Eastern Pacific, can (but doesn’t always) bring heavy storms and lots of rain to San Luis Obispo County, as happened in 1997 and 1982-83.
Some forecasters have proclaimed the 2015-16 pattern to be a “Godzilla El Niño,” saying its intensity parallels or exceeds the most powerful such systems on record.
If, indeed, the 2016 storm track has shifted southward for the winter, this season could be a wet one, which would bode well for Cambria’s forest and gardens and would reduce the immediate fire danger. But it also could produce local flooding, road closures, wind damage, hazards and landslides along areas prone to that (Highway 1 toward Big Sur, perhaps?).
Within Cambria’s drought-ridden Monterey pine forest, rain and wind can be another double whammy that brings down hazardous trees, crushing whatever those trees land upon and often interrupting electrical service. A couple of brief outages Tuesday, Jan. 5, could be a harbinger of things to come.
One aspect of North Coast life that experienced dramatic effects from El Niño in 2015 was the marine life that lives in or swims through the county’s near-shore areas.
Gray whales are migrating southward to Baja from Alaska, and whale watchers have reported many sightings in recent weeks.
Unusually warm water temperatures last summer contributed to a sea change in species frequenting Central and North Coast waters, according to officials at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting in Cambria Oct. 23.
Humpback whales and dolphins were the attraction for much of the summer as they frolicked and fed in the sheltered San Simeon Cove. One juvenile humpback stayed around for so many weeks, he was nicknamed “Junior” and became for a time one of San Simeon’s most photographed attractions.
But where baby whales swim, so do sharks looking for dinner, and there were frequent sightings along the Central Coast. In October, a lifelong fisherman was in the waters off Leffingwell Landing when his kayak was bumped twice and pursued by an aggressive hammerhead shark, a rare species in these waters.
Warm water can also increase the growth of certain algae, which can cause a spike in domoic acid toxicosis in marine and other mammals that have eaten infected shellfish and bait fish. Exposure to the biotoxin can affect the brain, cause seizures and even death.
That and a lack of normal food sources caused a spike in ill, dying and dead marine mammals on Central Coast shores, and rescue facilities were periodically overwhelmed with patients.
This year’s domoic-acid conditions all along the coast were so bad that the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department delayed until late December the annual recreational season for catching Dungeness crab. Some northern crab fisheries remain closed.
People opposed to an increase in water and sewage-treatment rates in Cambria have until Feb. 12 to file their official objection letters. Yes, the original deadline was Dec. 29, but because of two ZIP code errors in the Cambria Community Services District hearing notice mailed to ratepayers Nov. 13, the district reissued the notice with the correct ZIP codes and added more time to the deadline.
CSD counsel Tim Carmel assured ratepayers that the protests they had already filed would still be counted, as long as those letters were complete and met the requirements stated in the notice.
The possibility that protests mailed to the wrong ZIP code might have gone astray meant that some rate-increase objectors submitted new protests. Officials say only one protest is counted for each address.
If fewer than 50 percent of the district’s ratepayers object to the increases by the Feb. 12 hearing and CSD board members approve, the new rates will take effect March 1.
If the rates are approved, the delay in the decision would cost the district about $40,000, according to officials.
They say the district needs the increase so the two departments can take in enough income to pay for the services provided. The departments are supposed to be financially self-sufficient.
The district has kept rates too low for too long, according to consultant Alex Handlers of Bartle Wells, and the problem was exacerbated by ratepayers’ exceptional level of water conservation during the drought. They cut their water use by as much as 43 percent, which also cut district income accordingly.
Fire danger and Monterey pine forest crisis
Those twin topics were front and center at a wide variety of agencies and organizations — from state offices to local groups — throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2015. Representatives of Cambria Fire, Cal Fire, the county’s Fire Safe Council, CCSD, PG&E and more plotted and planned the best ways to keep Cambrians and the forest as safe as possible.
In May, various state, local and federal fire and emergency officials, including Cal Fire State Director Ken Pimlott, converged on Cambria for a news conference highlighting the urgent need for property owners to make their own houses and lots more fire safe.
The Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group reorganized under the chairwomanship of former county supervisor Shirley Bianchi. Since then, the representatives who participate have confronted such problems as the fire danger posed by illegal encampments in the forest, clearing brush from right-of-way areas, simplifying the permit process for removing dead trees, and securing grants to help pay to identify and remove hazardous trees that could fall on people, vehicles, roads and other public areas, homes and other buildings. The group recently expanded its scope to include El Niño-related emergencies.
And while the recent rains have diminished somewhat the immediate risk of wildfire, those storms also are apt to encourage heavier growth of brush and greenery.
Then if spring and summer weather turns hot, dry and drought-ish, local fire danger in the forest and the Santa Lucia hills could spike again.
Fire service debate
As the drought continued, El Niño threatened and firefighters were poised to handle whatever Mother Nature doled out. But the resignation of Mark Miller, chief of the Cambria Fire Department since 2008, launched a domino-effect upheaval that remains unresolved for the long term.
Even though Miller’s resignation had been expected, the Cambria services district’s general manager hasn’t selected a replacement, let alone having that person trained and waiting in the wings, as Miller had been when former chief Bob Putney retired.
Instead, GM Jerry Gruber urged board members to sign a yearlong department-management contract with Cal Fire and launch an ad hoc committee to research the district’s options for running the stand-alone department. And that’s what they did.
A groundswell of support for local control of Cambria Fire was launched, and signs of that support for the 139-year-old independent department popped up in neighborhood yards around town.
Then fire Capt. Steve Bitto retired in September after 27 years with Cambria Fire, and in December, Rob Lewin, county/Cal Fire chief, retired after 37 years in fire service.
Ad hoc member Mike Thompson said recently that the committee hopes to have its report and recommendations to the district board at its January or February meeting.
A Cambria treatment plant that uses a variety of technologies to filter, treat and make brackish water drinkable has been operating since September. The plant is designed to supplement scarce groundwater supplies in dry spells by pouring the treated water back into the San Simeon Creek aquifer.
The plant, originally dubbed the emergency water supply project (EWS), then the Advanced Sustainable Water Treatment Plant (ASWTP) and most recently as the Sustainable Water Treatment Plant (SWTP) operates under an emergency permit the county issued because the district maintained the community could run out of water during the prolonged drought.
That didn’t happen, in large part because of ratepayers’ willingness to tighten their water-consumption belts and make do with much less. The district declared a water emergency, imposed surcharges for residential water use above 50 gallons per person per day (with similar cutbacks required for commercial accounts), and banned outdoor water use, especially for landscape irrigation.
But it’s raining now, and the plant is still running. District GM Gruber said in a recent email interview that the district will base continued operation of the facility “on well levels and the amount of precipitation we received.” He’ll recommend that the plant be turned off and restrictions lifted “once we get a reasonable amount of rain and the wells respond accordingly.”
In the meantime, he and staff are vetting the plant’s draft Environmental Impact Report, a key component of the district’s application for a full, permanent permit for the plant’s operation.
Other capital projects
There’s been a lot of North Coast activity beyond the CCSD, drought and fire concerns.
County Public Works and its contractors completed Cambria’s stylish new Main Street Bridge near Santa Rosa Creek Road. Officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony in January 2015, complete with tiny pre-kindergarten students in hard hats (with bubble blowers) and a drone above taking pictures of the curved structure that carries traffic into/out of East Village.
The $3.5 million project had been in the works for about 15 years. Structural engineers had deemed the previous bridge to be too old, too narrow and unsafe. The new bridge features two 12-foot-wide traffic lanes and a pair of 5-foot-wide lanes for bicycles and pedestrians.
In September, ecstatic sports enthusiasts launched a new set of courts for pickleball players, whose sport has been described as a cross between tennis, badminton and wiffle ball.
The nonprofit Pickleball by the Sea club raised nearly $200,000 for the project located between Santa Rosa Creek and the parking lot of the Old Cambria Grammar School.
What’s on the horizon? School board officials are moving forward on plans to finally improve some rutted vacant land into play fields for Santa Lucia Middle School.
Gruber said the design and bid documents are ready for a new water tank on Fiscalini Ranch, a site that’s adjacent to the Top of the World neighborhood. The documents could go out to bid this month.
The district also needs to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, in part to meet state requirements for the SWTP and new standards for wastewater. While the upgrades could cost millions of dollars, Gruber expects to do the work in phases.
For instance, Gruber said the next step is installing equipment nicknamed “the rag picker” to significantly improve the facility’s overall operations. Other modifications in the works or recently completed will improve the plant’s ability to handle extremely heavy flows.
The district and its consultant, former state senator Dean Florez, are seeking grants for the plant’s upgrades.
CCSD board shift
For those who didn’t know Muril Clift, and for some who did, the CCSD board vice president’s sudden resignation Sept. 24 was stunning.
Even board President Gail Robinette was wide eyed and somber faced after Clift’s announcement, saying “this is a shock.”
Clift said he was leaving the board because his personal obligations had to take precedence.
Then on Oct. 18, when the board convened to discuss who should fill the vacancy, Clift stepped up to endorse the nomination of former CCSD director and board president Greg Sanders. The vote to approve was quick and unanimous, and Sanders, a land-use attorney, was sworn in immediately.
Sanders and wife Teri are to be co-honored by the Cambria Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Jan. 12, as Cambria’s 2015 Citizens of the Year.
San Simeon groundwater-treatment project
San Simeon’s services district may have solved its seasonal problem of having high chloride levels in the tiny town’s water supply. In the process, the district soon might be able to lift the moratorium on new connections that has been in place for more than 30 years.
By this spring, Charles Grace, manager of the San Simeon Community Services District, expects the new groundwater treatment project will keep within acceptable levels any chlorides and other total dissolved solids in the town’s water.
Grace said once the project is done (perhaps by March), water from the aquifer can be diverted into a reverse-osmosis unit and then flow into the community’s storage reservoir and distribution system.
The district has a $500,000 grant for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has high hopes of getting another grant from the Division of Drinking Water’s Integrated Regional Water Management program. The district requested $489,600 from that program for the project, but doesn’t yet have confirmation about how much of that, if any, the district will receive.
Grace said in December, “We’ve been told by IRWM representatives that there is good news on the horizon,” and he expects to know more soon.