The Cambrian

SLO County planning director rebuts Coastal Commission concerns on Cambria water plant

The current brine-disposal process at the Cambria Sustainable Water Facility, which was to hasten evaporation with blowers, has been problematic.
The current brine-disposal process at the Cambria Sustainable Water Facility, which was to hasten evaporation with blowers, has been problematic.

County representatives say the emergency permit for Cambria’s water-treatment project won’t expire as long as a drought emergency declaration is in place and the services district continues to work toward getting a permanent permit for the facility on San Simeon Creek Road.

County Planning Director James Bergman reiterated that opinion in a letter he sent Friday, June 3, to the acting executive director of the California Coastal Commission. John Ainsworth had recommended in a May 16 letter to Bergman that the county not grant a third permit extension to the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) emergency permit.

The district is in the midst of preparing detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the plant, which was originally identified as the Emergency Water Supply project but which the district subsequently rebranded as the Sustainable Water Facility.

Bergman wrote that a condition in the emergency permit “gives the CCSD the flexibility to operate the facility during the current drought and future droughts that meet specified conditions” while the district works toward getting the regular coastal development permit. “The condition intentionally did not include an expiration date because it is difficult to predict the amount of time the CCSD would need” to get that full permit.

The planning director said the emergency permit required the district to apply within 30 days for the full permit, to ensure “a timely remedy of the underlying emergency. It was not an expiration date” for the emergency permit.

It is the county’s longstanding practice to give applicants sufficient time … to prepare technical studies in support of their projects.

James Bergman, San Luis Obispo County planning director

The district complied with the 30-day requirement, Bergman said, submitting an application June 15, 2014. The CSD “is actively working with the county” to complete that application, Bergman wrote.

District officials have “until June 30 to submit additional information in response to the county’s initial review letter,” he explained, but if they are unable to meet that deadline, he will evaluate a request for more time, especially since the district expects to release in August the long-awaited environmental-impact report for the plant.

“It is the county’s longstanding practice to give applicants sufficient time … to prepare technical studies in support of their projects,” Bergman continued. “Moreover, the amount of time the CCSD has taken so far is typical for a project of this size and complexity.”

The project was initially designed to provide the community of about 6,000 people with additional water during droughts. The plant treats a brackish blend of fresh, salty and treated wastewater. Water that has gone through the plant’s filtration and treatment processes is then put back into the aquifer, where it flows toward the district’s wells. Leftover brine was to be held in a pond and allowed to evaporate.

The plant has been online twice, once to provide data from a state-mandated “tracer test” in 2014 that tracked how long it took for treated water from the plant to travel underground to the district’s well field, and again from September through December 2015.

In Ainsworth’s letter, he also listed four reasons to back up his recommendation about not extending the permit, reasons Bergman rebutted point by point in his response.

Bergman said the district’s project “has not been modified,” was immediately tested while still under contract with the design/builder, and is “fully operational as currently constructed,” although the district “is looking at alternative methods to handle brine disposal.”

The current brine-disposal process, which was to hasten evaporation with blowers, has been problematic.

Bergman wrote that he’d asked the district to provide commission staff with a report Ainsworth said was required, even though the requested well-level and pumping data to be contained in the document is included in General Manager Jerry Gruber’s monthly written reports to his board.

When contacted via email for a response to Bergman’s letter, Coastal Commission senior environmental scientist Tom Luster said, “We just got the letter and will be reviewing it, though I don’t know if/when we’ll have a response yet.”

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