There’s news on two fronts about the Cambria services district’s $13 million Sustainable Water Facility (formerly known as the Emergency Water Supply project):
▪ The facility will go online again on or about Aug. 15, according to Jerry Gruber, general manager of the Cambria Community Services District. The action comes in part, he said, because the agency must complete a second two-month test tracking the flow of treated water from the project to district water-source wells.
▪ A judge has found in favor of the district and ruled against all claims that LandWatch of San Luis Obispo County had filed against the CSD. The claims were about the district’s water facility, which treats and filters brackish water and returns it to the San Simeon Creek aquifer.
Restarting the plant
In an Aug. 1 email to his board members and others, Gruber noted that the midmonth launch doesn’t mean the plant will be fully functional then.
“There are several things that need to take place prior to regular startup, such as reinstalling the membrane filters that have been sent offsite to be pickled, calibrating and testing all of the monitoring equipment to include flow meters, and making sure everything is operational.”
He estimated the 60-day tracer study should begin Sept. 1.
In an email interview for The Cambrian, Gruber said getting the system going “requires more than simply throwing a switch. Staff feels that the two-week period of time” for start-up will be sufficient, and allows for time to install above-ground pipe for the tracer study.
Gruber said the operational rates charged to customers when the plant is running won’t kick in until after the plant is up and running, likely Sept. 1.
“Although cost is incurred during start-up” processes, he said, “I feel the equitable and fair thing to do is to charge our customers for the water when the facility is fully operational.”
The water department staff won’t be handling all the start-up chores on their own, he explained. Firms such as H2O Innovations, Alpha Electric and CDM Smith will be involved in the “coordinated effort.”
Coincidentally, mid- to late August is about when the district expects to release for public and agency review the sustainable water project’s long-awaited draft environmental impact report.
That document is to profile the plant’s impacts on the environment and ways to mitigate them (if they can be mitigated). The report is a crucial part of the CSD’s application for the project’s regular coastal development permit from the county.
The plant has operated in the past, and will be operating this time, under an emergency permit issued by the county. That permit issuance was based on the district’s declaration of a water-supply emergency in Cambria, not to mention similar declarations by the county for San Luis Obispo County and the governor for the entire state.
Gruber said, “The goal, once the regular coastal development permit is obtained, is to have the flexibility to run the sustainable water system more consistently. This will benefit both the Santa Rosa and San Simeon aquifers and watersheds, and have a positive impact on the environment, the creeks and the San Simeon Lagoon.”
Project opponents frequently dispute those and other claims about the plant.
On July 27, Judge Ginger Garrett filed her final ruling on the LandWatch San Luis Obispo petition against the district, county, governor’s Office of Planning and Research and state Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water.
That judgment was filed in the Paso Robles branch of Superior Court.
In her 11-page decision, Garrett answered the petition point by point and argument by argument, taking on each cause of action.
In the words of the Cambria district’s counsel, Tim Carmel, Garrett’s ruling denied LandWatch’s “writ petition and complaint in its entirety.”
LandWatch was the petitioner, but according to CSD sources, most of the legal work and court appearances were done by Stanford Law Clinic attorneys and students.
The judge’s ruling can be appealed to the California Court of Appeal, 2nd District, according to CSD Director Greg Sanders. He is an attorney, but does not represent the district in that capacity.
“The notice of appeal must be filed within 60 days of entry of judgment,” Sanders said in an Aug. 1 email interview, adding that a hearing on any appeal would likely be about 12 months from the date the trial court enters judgment.
According to Sanders, wuch an appeal “would be even more specious and a waste of taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money than the original lawsuit. The judge’s decision is well grounded and reasoned.”
As of late June, defending the case had cost the district $246,899, according to Gruber’s June 23 staff report to his board. That figure didn’t include costs for district staff time.
One online debate about the decision began as soon as former CSD spokesman Tom Gray posted the judge’s ruling on Facebook’s “Cambria Currents” group page, with some people posting their concerns about water from the plant spurring new growth in Cambria.
Deborah Sivas of the Stanford Law Clinic has said in the past that the lawsuit was never intended to stop the project, but was to force the district to follow California environmental law and prepare a full and comprehensive environmental impact report for the project.
In response to an emailed question from The Cambrian, Sivas said LandWatch was disappointed in the ruling and evaluating the question of an appeal, calling the implications of the decision “troublesome.”
“In essence,” she wrote, “it allows SLO County to issue an emergency coastal development permit without any real expiration date (i.e., never expires except when the permittee wants it to expire) for a long-term public works project without environmental review and without the district ever having to complete an application for a regular, permanent coastal development permit. As we read the decision, the facility can continue operating indefinitely under an ‘emergency’ exemption, whether or not the CCSD ever completes environmental review or obtains a permanent coastal development permit. Indeed, it appears that the CCSD is now proposing to permit a somewhat different project which would be used for long term growth and thus will not ever submit a completed application for the emergency project.
She added that “the decision is based on the premise that Cambrians knew or should have known in January 2014, when the CCSD first began discussing the idea of a temporary emergency project, that the CCSD was actually committing to and approving the long-term water supply project that was constructed and that concerned members of the public should, therefore, have filed a lawsuit at that time, even before there was any project description to share with the community. In the future, when the CCSD starts discussing an idea or concept and retains a consultant to explore it, concerned citizens will feel compelled to file suit immediately to protect their rights.”