Over the Hill

Nacimiento water project is a mirage

As a boy I saw mirages. We lived 10½ miles from Lake Ontario, one of North America’s great lakes, on a straight, generally level road. On hot summer days, I thought I saw shimmering water long before we reached the lake. But the shimmering water on the horizon kept moving away as we drove toward it. It was a mirage. The hot air bent the light rays.

Now I see mirages of Paso Robles enjoying Nacimiento Lake’s water. The Nacimiento Water Project pipeline is almost finished. Engineers expect to send water though it next spring, but we who live in Paso Robles won’t be using it. We don’t have the necessary water treatment plant.

Last week, the City Council voted to pay an engineering firm $1 million to design the plant. City officials predict designing the plant will take a year. Building the plant may take two more years.

We Roblans probably won’t drink Nacimiento water until the end of 2013, but we’re already paying for it. This past July, the city put out about $700,000 toward repaying the construction bonds and about $600,000 for pipeline maintenance and operations. Those were initial, partial payments. Future payments could be $4.2 million per year on the bonds and $1 million for maintenance and operations.

How did Nacimiento become a mirage for Paso Robles? There was little opposition in 2004 when the city signed up for 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water per year. The trouble started in 2007 with the council’s first attempt at raising water rates to pay for the Nacimiento water.

That plan would have charged all water customers the same amount no matter how little they used. It aroused a gush of opposition.

Since then, city officials have proposed several other rate increase plans. They were dropped or defeated. Then early this year, the council approved a plan that seemed widely acceptable.

But a small group of opponents, the Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles, continued their opposition and lawsuits. In October, a judge issued a tentative ruling in one suit. He said the rate increase isn’t a special tax, as the Concerned Citizens contended, and won’t need approval from two-thirds of the city voters.

But he also ruled the city’s rate-increase notices didn’t include enough information. The city will have to repeat the whole procedure. It must be completed before the city can finance the construction of the new treatment plant.

Until the plant is built, Nacimiento Lake water will remain a shimmering mirage on the Paso Robles horizon.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.