Cambria is running out of time and money

September 15, 2015
Cambria Pond

Cambria brine pond


The Cambria Community Services District has just two and a half months before it will begin operating in the red, according to the district’s latest projections.

Cambria is currently strapped for cash as it tries to get a $13 million emergency water desalination project operating correctly. The rate payers voted to raise water rates at times the desalination plant is operating. However, because of engineering deficiencies the plant is rarely operational.

Meanwhile, the district is awaiting the arrival of $4.3 million in grant funds to offset rising costs. But, the grant funds may not arrive in time to keep the district in the black.

On Thursday, District General Manager Jerry Gruber told the board that the district would complete September with a balance of a little more than $600,000. The district’s balance sheet is slated to be negative $43 by the end of November if the grant money does not arrive, according to the latest projections.

On Tuesday evening, a district board subcommittee will discuss additional water and sewer rate increases, which are now under consideration. In addition to paying for the water project, the district will soon have to make sewer repairs.

Last year, water rates in Cambria effectively doubled. Prior to September 2014, the average monthly residential water bill was $48.02. The rate hike increased the average bill to $109.02 when the emergency water system is operating and to $85.02 when it is not.

The district constructed the water project under an emergency permit, but the supply system has thus far generated little water for Cambria residents. Earlier this year, the district operated the water system for about two and a half months. It had numerous flaws and needed to be shut down for repairs.

In particular, a pond is too small to effectively treat the brine laden water. The district paid engineering firm CDM Smith $500,000 to design and construct the pond and then agreed to pay another $500,000 to have the pond fixed.

The district still owes CDM Smith $1.5 million, Gruber said at the board meeting last week. The district has been deferring payments to water project contractors, a district staff reports states.

The emergency water supply project transforms a mix of fresh water, seawater, creek underflow and wastewater into potable water for residents.

In addition to containing a faulty design, the emergency water project prompted a costly lawsuit.

LandWatch of San Luis Obispo County sued the district last year, alleging the district breached state law by rushing through the project while skipping required components of an environmental review.

The district has spent $160,000 battling the lawsuit and plans to spend an additional $250,000 on its legal defense.

Gruber is currently proposing reducing district services in order to keep the district afloat. At last week’s meeting, he offered possible cost-cutting measures, including moving administrative offices into the fire department, reducing hours of operation, selling district-owned properties and canceling broadcasts of board meetings.

The general manager said that he did not want to freak everyone out and make them think the district would sell all its property and move into the fire department. But, Gruber also said it is not in the district’s best interest to pay $3,600 a month in rent for the district office.

Prior to construction of the water supply system, district officials said the project would cost less than $9 million. The district is now counting on a state drought-related grant to cover an additional $4.3 million in costs.

In order to acquire the grant funds, the district must have a state-approved water management plan.

District counsel Tim Carmel said a water management plan takes about two months to complete. It requires three public hearings, he added, noting that the district plans to adopt the plan at its regular November meeting. Critics say it will take longer.

Additionally, the district will not receive the grant funds all at once. The state will examine district expenditures prior to reimbursing them.

The district also has some risk of losing the grant money because of the ongoing lawsuit. If LandWatch were to prevail in its suit against the district, Cambria would have to return all of the grant funds to the state.

District officials have said, in that worst case scenario, the district would not abandon the water project. Rather, it would wait until it obtains a regular permit in order to operate the water system.

The board subcommittee will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to take public input on anticipated rate increases.


Dig deeper, folks! Here’s a few points about the Cambria CSD we should all be wondering about:

1.) Why does the office employ so many people? Templeton has a similar community, and runs on a much more economical staff. If you consider the number of people in the CCSD vs. the number of people that are employed in the Water and Waste Water sections, it is easy to see why the CCSD is so out of whack.

2.) Why does the CCSD hire out so many engineering projects when they employ a full time engineer? Why doesn’t the CCSD employee just do his job, that he is paid handsomely for?

3.) The CCSD has to replace sections of sewer and the treatment plan because they haven’t employed enough people to perform the routine maintenance that is REQUIRED by the state on a regular basis. The waste water plant still operates mainly on run-down, out-of-date equipment from the 70’s. Good luck with that.

4.) Why is there such a high employee turnover rate in the Water and Waste Water departments? Is it the frequently unsafe working conditions? Is it the horrible mismanagement of allocated funds? Is it the intolerable district mananger or his assistant? Is it the fact that even the desk clerks make more money, and have no licenses or no responsibility for public health but still make more money?

5.) Why is there such a high turnover of employees in the office? Is it Monique, the assistant? Is it Jerry, the district manager? They seem firmly in place, but every other position has turnover. hmmmmmmm….

6. If they need to move their office to another location, there are plenty available. Threatening the fire station is just bullying tactics. There is the old water yard or the waste water plant. Just like everyone else on a budget, you do what you gotta do!

7. The District was well aware of the problems with the “emergency” plant they hastily threw together. It’s all a game to them…

Do your research folks; talk to any employee who has had to leave due to working conditions or been forced out-and there are plenty of them. What is going on in Cambria is shameful and a disservice to all the folks who live and work there.

Francesca Bolognini

What saddens me the most about this is that Fish and Wildlife created a 700 page report on the developement of off stream storage on Santa Rosa Creek. This project would have entailed several small dams up stream in the watershed that would have slowed the water coming down so that about 1/3rd of it would have ended up in our aquifer. The rest would have gone half to evaporation, which would have enriched the moisture level of the fuel load and half to the ranchers that owned the individual parcels. Win, win , win. The ponds would be small enough that they would not require an EIR and the plan was originally drawn up as Steelhead Salmon rehabilitation. Win, win, win, win.

This year, NOAA is predicting a warm winter with above average rainfall. We will be watching enough water to keep us all year go straight to the ocean within a couple of days, as it has in the past when the rainfall is heaviest. And we will be stuck with an illegal nightmare that instead of bringing back our world class steel head run, would at best be a toxic, highly expensive and mostly inoperable nightmare.

Perhaps, since what was installed does not work and apparently violates the law, we could have our money back and replace it with a project that not only meets approval, but our needs as well.


This report speaks to just how much the water rate will go up, how much will the sewer rate rise to cover the cost of the estimated $10 MILLION in improvements at the wastewater plant?

This is only a portion of the $tory.


Jim Bergman, the County Planning Director, signed off on the emergency permit without doing any environmental review. The CCSD received a number of violations after operations began. If the process had been followed correctly, Cambrians would have water now. But the James in his infinite wisdom, allowed the CCSD to begin operating the plant without environmental review.

As a private person in the construction field, will Jim sign off on my next development permit without doing environmental review?

Hey Jim, want to sign off on my development permit without environmental review?

Francesca Bolognini

Thank you for this. What is not mentioned in the above article is that the County and the Governor’s office are also named in the law suit. Had proper proceedure been followed, we would not be in this mess. Had the CCSD chosen an approved, environmentally sound and affordable project, we would have something to show for it now. Laws have been ignored by several parties. Those laws would have protected us, had they been enforced. Where is the accountability? We have been burdened with a failed, toxic facility that we cannot afford and does not work. It never should have been built in the first place, under current environmental law. Now we are being told that we will go bankrupt and forfeit our assets???

There is quite a bit at stake here and quite a lot that does not add up and smacks of negligence and collusion. It should be under investigation by the proper legal authorities. Someone should be held responsible and it should not be the Cambrians, who were lied to.

Jorge Estrada

If the county gets their new water company, starting with the district in the Paso Robles area, they will expand into other areas and possibly Cambria too. Their’s lots of revenue in the water business and the County can use their own staff to justify and set rates through a lengthly, costly, and sparcely attended public process. Yes the CSD layer can go and more county jobs will rapidly expand. Oh yes, your rates will be high anyway so stand in line for one of those jobs. Water, sewers and garbage provide gov job security and the rates are set through a public process that I’m certain all will attend, usually during the Holidays.