Cambria in hot water over desal project

May 23, 2016

Cambria’s reclaimed water retention basin

(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.)


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.

Cambria General Manager Jerry Gruber

Cambria General Manager Jerry Gruber

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.

Letter to SLO Cnty Re ECDP May 2016 by CalCoastNews


Cambria needs to hire past members of the LOCSD to run their community. Think of the possibilities!


Does Cambria really want Pandora, Lisa, Wright or Ochinski’s CSD Boards? Cambria just needs to read Aesops story #176, the tale of the “Farmer and the Viper”. When you take in snakes be prepared to get bit and die, fits like a glove……


Of course they do! then They could “legally” steal the taxpayers money, dupe the community into believing that the desal plant can run full time without penalty while lying to the regulators.

When things get bad enough, they can simply declare bankruptcy, have the county step in and take over…leaving yet another community in a state of shambles.


Francesca Bolognini

I am glad that the Coastal Commission is still able to detect BS when they smell it. There were several much more eco friendly and dramatically less expensive ways to insure a healthier watershed. The CCSD chose this one, promoted by a board member (who is a partner in a law firm that also represents the builder and installers of this debacle, specializing in defeating environmental laws for development purposes) because it could be used as a tool to promote more development and real estate sales.

The regulating agencies, who attempted to protect the interests of both the residents and the environment, made it quite clear that they recommended reservoirs and off stream storage rather than this toxic, fallible and extremely expensive direction, which, when actually implemented, was further modified beyond anything that would have been permitted, or voted upon, causes very dangerous pollution (that require disposal at King City Toxic Wast Dump) and DOES NOT WORK.

This project also puts a serious burden upon small town of people who, many of us being on a limited income, cannot support such folly. The very Board member whom I see as violating the arms length nature necessary for proper government transactions, recommends a pay raise for the general manager based on what is paid in MONTECITO. This tells you what they have in mind for our town. In the mean time, we are teetering on bankruptcy, which would lead to privatization of our water and infrastructure and , likely, the loss of our Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to development (both leveraged per the loan agreement for the plant) and in their dreams, more toxic, expensive desal and huge, Montecito-like homes.

We have a few too many new comers here that fall for the “we’re out of water” hysteria that the Board proffers and then turns around and IMMEDIATELY starts issuing building permits. I’ve been here 37 yrs. and this is not my first rodeo. Where are government regulators when we need them? This at least warrants a fraud investigation, given that the project was entered into with what appears to me to be a complete lack of good faith, which is required by contract law. This would include the Board members who signed the loan agreement (which does not include Ms Amanda Rice) the designers, builders and installers who saddled us with an inappropriate project that does not work . Indeed, operation of the plant as it is now will likely cause irreparable contamination of the ground water.

It is my opinion that both our money, and the grant money from the State should be returned, that monstrosity be removed from the creek and all environmental damage be remediated at the expense of those who caused it. Complete restoration. This should be overseen by responsible parties, not the current Board members (who should be replaced) and an appropriate means of water storage, such as reservoirs and off stream storage be put in place.

Thank you , Coastal Commission, for being the responsible entity to stand up to the victimization of a small community. Most of us are just trying to take care of the paradise we are allowed to inhabit and share with visitors from all over the county, state and world and to do the right thing.


Someone needs to tell the Coastal Commission to stuff it just say no to the self serving stuffed shirts.


I’m not defending the CSD, but people need to remember that the Coastal Commission is the poster boy for abuse of government power. For, example, the Coastal Commission stopped a property owner from building a home on their land because it would spoil the view for kayakers.

Francesca Bolognini

I am aware that not everyone is a fan of the Coastal Commission. However, I have also lived in several places that had none and I have lived in places that were developed pre-Commission. Given the state of ALL of those places, I would far prefer the (in the opinion of some) over protective nature of the Commission. What it comes down to is the preservation of what most of us hold dear and the access to same that is NOT enjoyed in many other remaining (somewhat) natural locations due to the influence of money.

While “spoiling the view” for kayakers, that project may have also spoiled the view for anyone else as well. Not to mention that it may have been prohibited for any number of other reasons as well. Vilifying the organization, which is unlikely to be perfect (as nothing is) is hardly the proper response to the fact that they are the ONLY regulating body that has come to the aid of the community of Cambria in our time of need. Please re-read the article and the Commisions’ well prepared letter for, perhaps, a better understanding of what has transpired here.

The protections afforded by a robust Coastal Commission were the very reason I wanted to live here. It is still a relatively natural place and will, with proper protection, remain so.


Yes, this is a blatant example of govt over reach and boon-doggled buearacracy- one govt agency attempting to tell another govt agency how to do it’s job (worse yet, based upon 3rd party info and assumptions).

If people can’t see that, maybe they are being blinded by their larger political motives…



What did Cambria CSD get RIGHT with this project?

Jorge Estrada

Modern day engineering seems to have turned into a very expensive best guess?


SLO government simply does not care who stupid they look.This is good for CCN as these articles practically write themselves, but bad for taxpayers as we foot the bill for the incompetency of our leaders. I guess there is only one solution: throw money at the problem and give the people in charge a raise. It’s the way we do things in SLO county way.


Quite a predicament…..Over pay your GM and now this, mmmmm. Funny thing is Bruce Gibson’s the County Supervisor for this area, Gibson was well aware of what was transpiring all along, and condoned it!!!!! This all started under Shirley Bianchi, and continues today. Cambria must come to terms with these continuing failures. Eliminate the CCSD, save the community, save money, soon Cambria will lose the Fire District, when does Cambria determine the need to downsize…….ELIMINATE THE CSD!!!!!!!

Francesca Bolognini

Thomas, I would agree with you except for a fact that you point out right up front. Gibson condoned the project. So did the County Planning Director, Jim Bergman. So how would handing the situation to the county help us, exactly? There is plenty of development money corruption in this county, at all levels. That state of affairs will only get worse as time goes on and people are emboldened by the lack of Rule of Law that should have prevented this situation in the first place and the resulting escalating encroachment on the coastline makes our less developed communities all the more appealing and financially exploitable.

What we need at our town level is the same as what is needed at the Federal level, MONEY OUT OF POLITICS. When the issues of environment and the well being of residents are no longer compromised by real estate development money, this sort of thing would not be a problem. There were many, many more environmentally friendly and far cheaper solutions to this problem. The project was chosen on the basis of it being a tool for further development.


Francesca, a couple of things. It’s great that you and I can have a conversation about what is best for our community. The county wouldn’t have funded any part of this project, but let Cambria run with this boondoggle. No funding, no project. Secondly, the engineering dept. at the county level, would’ve taken years, if ever to come up with an additional water source. Great examples are Los Osos, Paso Robles, and Avila. These CDS’s are money pits, plain and simple. The county is horrible, but it removes a fatty layer of funding from a overly bloated host. Look at Gruber, his salary and benefits, with just 6,000 people to support it. Money, lack of oversiteand a undereducated voters have all been a intricate part of this waste, people need to learn what it means to use the ballot system. Just like the old saying, “trash in and trash out”. Have a great day and appreciate our Central Coast and let’s eliminate these CSD’s…..

Francesca Bolognini

Thanks for your civility. It is rare on some of these sites. Yes, a discussion is much needed. Perhaps you are unaware that the county Dept. of Public Works has a list of “desal opportunities” for the coast that includes A LOT of desal, and 4 of them in San Simeon Creek. We will still be under the same pressures to develop and then it will be in the hands of people who do not even live here.

You may be right, but I would rather have MONEY OUT OF POLITICS and local control, not by real estate interests. Better information is key. We now have a better and more fair editor to our local paper, which will help to circulate more correct information. Setting the salaries at a better level would also help. No closed meetings would be preferable. Mandatory transparency would help, as would a public vote EVERY time a new board member is chosen. But MONEY OUT at every level of government and enforcement of Rule of Law is an absolute necessity, no matter which way we go.


Shirley Bianchi and Bruce Gibson 9n the same sentence should tell the taxpayers, rate payers and citizens everything they need to know about this project. Shirley has defended and protected Bruce like a mother hen regardless of his actions from sleeping with his administrative assistant for several years (even traveling with her on the taxpayer dime) while married to his wife and is still sleeping with her, lies about his residency in the district, creating the mess for the Paso Water issue along with Hill and Katcho, and now they are going for Creston. Gibson should be talking about his connections with the water companies who want to control, build, develop in this County through his business in Fresno. These people are never to be trusted, as they are all like fleas on a dog that just keep biting until you eliminate them!



NO RAISE for Gruber, stop trying to sneak it in. You raise water rates 116% and you want a 38% raise too. Time for you to go to the private sector and realize what it means to EARN a paycheck


Of course the plant needs to operate so they can charge more for services, Mr.Gruber still wants his 400% raise…