In light of the ongoing drought and historically low water levels at Lopez Lake, Arroyo Grande will ask its voters an important question this November: Should the city be allowed to buy water from the state during water emergencies?
The Arroyo Grande City Council voted unanimously at its meeting Tuesday night to place such a measure on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
“My dad always said, ‘Better to have and not want, than to want and not have,’ and I think that’s a really good way to put this,” Councilwoman Barbara Harmon said. “It is prudent, it is forward-thinking.”
In 1990, voters passed a a ballot measure that prohibited the city from participating in the California State Water Project — a pipeline and storage system that transports and shares water across the state — without first seeking an affirmative vote from citizens. That prevented the city from buying water directly from the state but also from purchasing excess state water from San Luis Obispo County or other local agencies.
This really just provides us with a tool to access water that may be available to us when we need it.
Geoff English, Arroyo Grande public works director
At the time, the measure was meant to be a growth deterrent.
In 1990, the coastal branch of the state water project’s California Aqueduct was still a few years from construction, but city officials worried that buying into the project — and paying for a turnout at Arroyo Grande — would feed annexation and housing developments and ultimately increase the population to unmanageable levels. After the measure passed, the council promised citizens they would vote on participating in the project in the 1992 presidential election, but that never happened, according to previous Tribune reports.
In 2010, the council directed staff to pursue a ballot measure enabling state water purchases, but that measure was put on hold in 2012 and never revisited.
Now, in light of depleting water levels at Lopez Reservoir, and the still-tenuous health of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, city water officials have said it would be advisable to start looking for supplemental water sources.
As of Thursday, Lopez Lake was 27.7 percent full, with about 13,667 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is equal to about 325,851 gallons, or enough water to supply about three homes a year.) The lake levels are expected to continue to fall unless significant rainfall replenishes the reservoir.
The city had previously been betting on several large water recycling projects to help strengthen its uncertain future supply.
Among those were Pismo Beach’s regional groundwater sustainability project, South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s treatment plans and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s proposed desalination project.
Shall the City of Arroyo Grande be authorized to purchase water from the State Water Project to supplement the City’s existing water supplies during local water emergencies declared by the Arroyo Grande City Council?
Nov. 8 ballot language
PG&E has since announced the latter option is unlikely, considering the impending closure of the nuclear power plant, and the first two options are in the early planning stages and will take years to get up and running. That means in the meantime the city needs to consider additional water sources in the event Lopez runs dry or another water emergency hits the community.
“I’m really glad that we are moving forward to try to put this in our back pocket,” Councilwoman Kristen Barneich said Tuesday night. “Because I think this is something that could be available in an emergency a lot sooner than the recycled water.”
Acting City Manager and public works Director Geoff English said Tuesday that though the measure would authorize Arroyo Grande to purchase state water, the city would likely never buy into the state water project itself (costs for that could be astronomical) but would instead focus on purchasing excess water from the county’s state allotment, or from other local agencies that get state water. These include Pismo Beach and the Oceano Community Services District.
These purchases would be temporary and not meant to act as a permanent addition to the city’s water supply, English said. The council would be required to declare a local water emergency before pursuing any water purchases.
“This language we crafted to be as palatable to the voters as possible, and not stir any potential thoughts of growth inducement,” English said at the council meeting. “We’re not looking at a permanent supply. … This really just provides us with a tool to access water that may be available to us when we need it.”