Cambria in hot water over desal project
May 23, 2016
(Editor’s Note: The May 16 letter from the California Coastal Commission to San Luis Obispo County about Cambria’s water reclamation plant is at the end of this article.)
By KAREN VELIE
The California Coastal Commission recommended that San Luis Obispo County reject Cambria’s third request for an emergency permit to operate its desalination plant, according to a May 16 letter from John Ainsworth, the acting executive director of the commission. In his letter, Ainsworth lists four reasons the county should not extend Cambria’s emergency coastal development permit.
Coastal Commission staff would like to discuss possible solutions to the plants permitting and operational issues with both the county and the district, said Tom Luster, Coastal Commission environmental scientist.
“The district has to make changes to the plant before applying for a new permit,” Luster said. “The plant cannot operate as initially proposed. They need to find another way to handle the discharge.”
In Nov. 2014, Cambria officials began testing the district’s new $13 million water reclamation plant. The district raised its water and sewage rates in March of this year by 116 percent to cover rising costs associated with the desalination plant and much needed sewer plant upgrades.
Under the plant’s emergency permit, it is only allowed to operate under specific water shortage conditions.
Nevertheless, the district operated the desalination plant at times when the amount of water in Cambria’s aquifer was no longer considered critical, as required by the permit. This has caused some residents to question if the district is operating the emergency plant illicitly because it can charge more for water when the desalination plant is operating, which generates more funding for the district.
The district has twice requested and received emergency permit extensions, with the current permit expiring on June 30. The permit, as issued by the county, requires that the project be used only for emergency purposes and only for existing development.
At a March 24 Cambria board meeting, the board voted to “rebrand” the project as a long-term water supply source for current residents and new projects.
The Coastal Commission’s letter also takes issue with the district’s plan to operate the plant as a source of sustainable water instead of as an emergency system without following the required permitting processes. In order to move the plant from its emergency status to a sustainable water resource plane, the district would need to have an environmental impact report and receive a coastal development permit.
“Before the district can continue operations, the facility must be modified in a manner not authorized by the existing emergency permit,” Ainsworth says in his letter.
The county’s 2014 emergency permit required the district to apply for a conditional use permit within 30 days, another requirement the district failed to meet.
Since the plant became operational in 2014, it has developed problems associated with its water basin and blowers designed to handle plant discharge. Because of failures in the discharge system, the Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the district to find an alternate method to handle brine discharge from the plant, something the district failed to accomplish, according to Ainsworth’s letter.
Ainsworth also confirmed with county staff that the district has failed to file required reports associated with the projects use.
Ainsworth letter to the county is also copied to Cambria Community Services District General Manager Jerry Gruber, who just last month received considerable attention for a proposed retroactive amendment to his employment contract that would have given him a raise of approximately 38 percent over six years. The public objected and the board pulled the item from the agenda.
Nevertheless, at Thursday’s district meeting, the board will again negotiate Gruber’s contract, according to the board agenda.