Oceano’s unapproved water sale pursuit
February 11, 2013
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
We are all aware of the decade’s long water shortage in Nipomo. For years the community has struggled with basin management, litigation and rising costs, a plight that will continue into the future.
In November the community went a different political direction than it has in the past, installing repeat director Bob Blair, a retired pharmacist, onto the Nipomo Community Services District Board. Many Nipomo residents are aware of the longtime father-son-like relationship between “Dr. Bob” Blair and Oceano Community Services District (OCSD) General Manager, Thomas Geaslen. It is also well known, that Geaslen and Blair have close ties to Supervisor Paul Teixeira; Geaslen’s wife is the supervisor’s legislative aide.
These close knit Three Musketeers have concocted a “magic pill” to solve the water problems for Nipomo. In a reverse Robin Hood move, they have sent henchman, Geaslen, to steal from the poor in Oceano ($40,000 MHI) and give to the rich in Nipomo ($65,000 MHI).
On January 25, Geaslen approached the Nipomo Community Services District’s Water Alternative Evaluation Committee, offering a “temporary” sale of Oceano water. He is quoted in the press saying the idea is “us trying to be good neighbors.” Geaslen, a Nipomo resident and ratepayer of NCSD, has a dog in the fight — albeit a Chi Wawa, admits his “agenda” is to increase revenue at the OCSD, where his healthy paycheck is derived.
What Geaslen seems to be overlooking is 84 percent of Oceano voters sent a clear message to the OCSD that “an election shall be held prior to any permanent sale of water to an entity outside the Oceano Community Services District.” Geaslen explained to the NCSD committee that the people’s initiative was, “rather weak and very, very ambiguous.” Insinuating that it can be overcome, he said, “So even though it says it must need a vote of the people, it doesn’t say who has to vote, what the vote is and all that, so if it came to it, there would be some technical and legal challenges to it.”
Approved ballot measure or not, in 2011 when previous OCSD management tried to sell the community’s water, Oceano citizens made a difficult choice. To either tax themselves, via a 218 protest process for a water rate increase or let the district sell its largest asset, its water — its future.
A series of water/sewer rate increases began in April of that year and have been incrementally increasing each year ever since. The “either/or” choice did not authorize “both.”
Geaslen tells his Board at every meeting that he has “turned it around” and the district has regained its financial health, leaving one to wonder why the push to sell any water, even temporarily.
Asserting he had permission from his Board and the Northern Cities Management Area (NCMA) group, Geaslen gave a 35-minute presentation to the NCSD committee wherein he proposed a 500 acre-foot per year allocation of blended waters from Oceano’s three sources (Lopez, State and groundwater), for 10-years, with multiple 5-year extensions. Geaslen also suggested he could broker the transfer of recycled water from the South County Sanitation District or perhaps the water companies should consider consolidation, he said, “As is being done on the east coast.” The water districts could combine, “Nipoceano” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Geaslen told the committee that he is in current negotiations with the city of Pismo Beach for water sales, follow up communications with the city engineer prove no such negotiations are underway. If they were, it too would be without his board’s approval. Pismo’s engineer said any sale of any groundwater would be heavily scrutinized by the NCMA group.
The OCSD Board has yet to have any water sale discussion, if Mr. Geaslen indeed had direction, as he claims he did; he received it without the benefit of the public, violating the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Geaslen was quick to answer the question if Supervisor’s Teixeira and Hill new about the proposal, saying, “yes” and boasted that Oceano was a “disadvantaged community” and is eligible for grants, but failed to mention that he is still delinquent on two audits and without a clean credit rating, Oceano will not be receiving any grants for a while.
Geaslen’s presentation went on and on suggesting that delivery costs would be minimal because they could intertie with Rural Water, a private water company in Arroyo Grande and that OCSD was “looking at transferring water through oil pipelines.” He thinks his alternative “would score a 10 and would not have “significant hurdles.”
Geaslen not only hasn’t discussed this proposal with his Board, he didn’t consult engineering experts who agree that Rural Water’s system is too small and would be too costly to upgrade to carry the volumes needed. Nor did he consult scientists and engineers who caution that oil pipelines are a toxic mess fraught with liability.
A week after the committee meeting, February 1, Geaslen met with Nipomo CSD General Manager, Michael LeBrun, together they walked the OCSD water facilities. LeBrun asked for a “term sheet” to take back to his committee and Board. Ill prepared to make any water sale offer to NCSD, Geaslen sent an email asking SLO County Public Works staff to provide details related to increasing the OCSD’s State Water allocation by 500 acre feet a year, what it would cost — including capital charges per acre foot and if there is capacity to deliver to Oceano. Geaslen is asking another agency to compile the details for his term sheet, all without his Board’s formal direction or any input from the community.
At the next NCSD committee meeting, February 4, one committee member, an engineer representing the Woodlands, did a cursory financial analysis for delivery of blended water from Oceano to Nipomo and found the cost to be on the order of that from Santa Maria. Another committee member suggested that permitting and environmental approvals for such a proposal would take five years to bring to fruition and Nipomo residents would need to vote to approve the purchase. Geaslen’s offer is too little too late and falls far short of the 2,500 acre feet a year that Nipomo is looking for.
When confronted at the February SLO County Water Advisory Council meeting about Geaslen’s “loose cannon” behavior, OCSD Vice President, Mary Lucey, said, “He’s MY loose cannon.”
The “magic pill” fails on its face and puts egg on the face of the OCSD Board. The next OCSD meeting is Wednesday, February 13, at 6:30pm at the district office. The agenda posted makes no mention of potential water sales.
Julie Tacker is a local activist who lives in Los Osos. Minutes documenting Geaslen’s presentation to the NCSD Water Committee meeting are available on the NCSD website and an audio recording is available upon request.