Cambrian: Opinion

LandWatch suit isn't what's costing the Cambria services district

The article “Lawsuit, glitches could hold up state funds for CCSD water project” (Aug. 19) leaves the mistaken impression that the Cambria Community Services District is “teetering on a financial precipice” as a result of a lawsuit filed last fall by LandWatch San Luis Obispo County. Not true, as the subsequent article “Financial outlook for Cambria CSD brightens” (Aug. 26) makes clear. In its statements to the public, the District is using the LandWatch lawsuit — which merely seeks to ensure that, going forward, the district complies with its environmental and permit obligations under the law — as a smokescreen for its own dubious financial decisions.

Last year, the district built a permanent new major public works water project on San Simeon Creek under the guise of providing the community with a temporary portable unit for drought protection. For the first eight months of 2014, the district told the public that it would undertake full environmental review for the new project, as required by the law, and it paid a consulting firm more than $1 million to conduct that review. But when many other agencies raised serious concerns about the impacts of the project on human health and the environment and suggested that substantial modifications would be necessary to comply with applicable law, the district shelved the environmental review and declared that the project was “exempt” from California’s bedrock environmental and public contracting laws.  

The district repeatedly told the county and the Governor’s Office that without “emergency” approval of the project, Cambria would run out of water within 60 to 90 days. But drinking water well levels were no lower than average for the relevant time of year, in part thanks to the community’s strong conservation efforts. And indeed, Cambria’s taps did not run dry in 2014, even though the project was not competed until 2015.  

When the district briefly tested the facility last winter, it caused more than a dozen water discharge violations and various other harms to nearby residents and wildlife. Those are the kind of harms that must be studied and mitigated under the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Coastal Act. LandWatch’s lawsuit is intended to require such study and mitigation before the district starts operating the project in earnest; the suit will not dismantle the project or stop its responsible operation in legitimate emergency circumstances and with appropriate environmental safeguards.   

Having spent some $13 million to construct the facility under an “emergency” no-bid public contract, the district has yet to provide any new drinking from it. 

Why? 

Not because of the lawsuit. But because even the district recognizes that running saltwater through reverse osmosis is energy intensive and much more costly than simply pumping available potable drinking water from the district’s existing San Simeon Creek wells.    

After the fact, the district is now trying to recoup some of the project costs by seeking state grant money from the county. The “glitch” in this plan is not the existence of a lawsuit intended to ensure proper and lawful future operation of the plant. The “glitch” is the district’s failure to provide the county with the required groundwater management plan and other documents necessary to secure the money.  

The district should stop blaming others for its management problems. The quick and very inexpensive way to resolve the outstanding lawsuit is to agree to comply with the law by completing the environmental review and obtaining the required permanent Coastal Act permit — as the district promised back in 2014. What is the district waiting for?

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