The Cambrian

Coastal Commission wants SLO County to deny CCSD third permit extension

CCSD Public Information Officer Tom Gray looks at equipment inside the microfilter unit at the Emergency Water Project in November 2014.
CCSD Public Information Officer Tom Gray looks at equipment inside the microfilter unit at the Emergency Water Project in November 2014. Cambrian file photo

So far, every time Cambria’s services district has used its water-treatment plant on San Simeon Creek Road, it’s done so under an emergency coastal development permit issued by the county in May 2014, and which has been extended twice since then.

Now, however, John Ainsworth, acting executive director of the California Coastal Commission, wants the county to deny a third extension of the permit, which is runs through June 30.

Instead, according to Tom Luster, environmental scientist for the commission, the county could consider issuing separate permits for the district to operate the plant for testing, or for operating it later this year if the town’s water supplies are running low. “And maybe there are some other options,” he said in a phone interview May 24, but commission staffers haven’t yet covered those yet with the county.

The district wants the extension so it can perform a state-mandated test and operate the plant to replenish the aquifer if well levels drop into the danger zone.

However, Airlin Singewald, senior planner for the county, said in an email to Luster and CCSD General Manager Jerry Gruber the emergency permit “does not have an expiration date” and is “valid as long as the District is in a stage 3 water shortage emergency or unilateral action is taken on the regular” coastal development permit.

Singewald wrote that, if the department were not to issue another extension, the permit wouldn’t expire. Instead, the CCSD would need to apply for a new regular follow-up permit.

Meanwhile, the Cambria Community Services District is preparing an environmental impact report (EIR) as a crucial part of its application to operate the plant longer term, anytime the district deems it necessary, and to provide a “sustainable water” source, as the CSD Board of Directors rebranded the future project in March.

CCC letter

In a letter sent May 16 to James Bergman, county planning director, Ainsworth said the water project has been modified so it no longer matches the description in the permit and that the district must make changes to the plant’s brine-disposal system and brine-holding pond before the CSD can operate the plant again. Those changes are not covered by the existing permit.

Ainsworth also said the CSD has operated the project in the past for non-emergency purposes not covered by the emergency permit, and has not submitted semi-annual monitoring reports to the county, reports “that include well-level, pumping data … and other information which justifies the need for the ongoing emergency water supply project.”

The project hasn’t been modified and is fully operational as constructed.

Jerry Gruber, Cambria CSD general manager

District officials dispute most of those statements, saying parts of the letter simply aren’t accurate. For instance, as CSD officials said during one of the “non-emergency” periods in which the plant was operated, that operation was to provide results of the first tracer test required by state water regulators, and to do a test-and-shakedown run on the plant while the contractors were still on site.

CSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said in an email interview May 24 that “the project hasn’t been modified and is fully operational as constructed, although there are no plans to turn the facility on at this time.”

“We do want to expand the scope of its current emergency-only use restriction through the regular coastal-development permit process,” he continued.

In response to Ainsworth’s assertion that the district hadn’t filed those monitoring reports, Gruber said, “Our well levels and pumping data are posted on the website monthly and included in my monthly report.

“Most importantly,” the GM continued, “we’re making good progress on the EIR for the regular coastal development permit, and the county has closely monitored that process.” The draft report “should be ready for public review in August.”

CCSD Director Amanda Rice said Monday, May 23, that while “each of the four reasons given in Ainsworth’s letter may have a tiny grain of truth in it,” there’s much more to each situation than was stated.

For instance, while the district is considering modifying how it disposes of the brine residual from the plant’s filtering-and-treating processes, the plant hasn’t been modified, Rice said. Those changes first must be thoroughly studied and detailed in that extensive (and expensive) EIR the district is preparing.

The report is part of the district’s application to convert the plant from an emergency-only facility to one that could be turned on any time CSD officials determine the district needs more water.

Rice said the district isn’t “processing development applications … that would result in new and additional water users reliant on the project,” as Ainsworth said in his letter. The CSD did sign off on a new-home project that transferred an active meter from one location to another, she said, but the initial project was in the pipeline before the district approved its November 2001 moratorium on new connections.

The district board did “rebrand” the future project, board President Gail Robinette said of Ainsworth’s assertion, “but that was because that’s the way the governor and other water districts are going” with their projects. People are looking for sustainable water projects in the face of droughts and other emergencies.” With the rebranding, “we’re not saying we’ll produce more water than the permits allow for,” but if a drought or other cause of a water shortage occurred, some of which can happen suddenly, “we wouldn’t be caught having to shut down our water service.”

Luster said in a May 20 interview that the county could issue permits that would meet the letter of the law and still allow the district to operate the plant for certain purposes. A second tracer test will show how long it takes for plant-treated water, injected back into the aquifer, to reach the area in which the CSD’s water-source wells are located.

Robinette said, “We want this to be a fully compliant, approvable site that the commission could use with other agencies … an example of what the commission expects from other districts, what they would actually approve. We welcome their support and their input as we progress.”


The officials of the commission, the county and the district have consulted occasionally on the project, but perhaps not often enough, Luster said.

In a phone conference on April 4, he, his boss Alison Dettmer (deputy director for energy, ocean resources and federal consistency), Robinette, Gruber, district Director Greg Sanders and others, discussed “the progress of the EIR and the modifications, the things they were considering. But no definitive decisions came out of the call.”

Several commission staffers met April 28 with county planning officials, discussing a wide range of issues countywide. Luster said he participated by phone in part of that meeting, to get an update on the Morro Bay desal plant and Cambria’s project. However, “it was mostly just a status report,” and CSD officials weren’t a part of that confab.

He said that he and other commission staffers had “offered to review sections of the administrative draft of the EIR, so if we had issues with them, the modifications could be included before the draft came out. We’ve asked some questions about the kind of in-stream flow study they’ll do, and changes planned for the evaporation basin” that’s part of the plant’s brine-disposal system.

If what we do now prevents a difficult time before the commission, that’s probably a good thing.

Tom Luster, California Coastal Commission environmental scientist

“We haven’t seen those yet,” he said, and with the extension deadline looming, the commission staff sent the letter to trigger more communication, sooner rather than later.

Of course, that assumes the district already has administrative draft.

Luster said, “We always like to say ‘coordinate early and often,’” Doing so can avoid the kinds of problems that can occur when an agency does a study to support a project “but it’s not the study we’d rely on for that kind of project.”

When it comes to regular communication between district, county and commission staffers, Luster advises “keeping us in the loop more often. It may take a little more time to do that, but it may save time in the long run, because we’ll have hammered everything out ahead of time. If what we do now prevents a difficult time before the commission, that’s probably a good thing.”

That kind of coordination and planning ahead, he said, “could move an application from a commission hearing to its consent agenda.”

If you go

The Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors will meet at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at the Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. Primary items on the regular business agenda is considering a revised preliminary budget for fiscal year 2016-17 and adopting an employment agreement with William Hollingsworth, newly appointed fire chief for the Cambria Fire Department (proposed annual salary, $124,908.) Labor negotiations on the contract for General Manager Jerry Gruber are to happen in closed session after the open meeting ends.

A pretrial hearing on a lawsuit against the district by Landwatch of San Luis Obispo and Stanford Law Clinic is to be heard in county Superior Court Friday, May 27, with Judge Ginger Garrett presiding. The lawsuit seeks to force the district to prepare environmental-impact studies on the Sustainable Water Facility (estimated to be the next iteration of the Emergency Water Supply project).