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The following article was posted on February 20th, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 30

A pipe dream becomes reality

The Nipomo Community Services District approves funding for an inter-tie pipeline with Santa Maria

BY FRANK GONZALES

A contractor bidding war in Nipomo is coming.

The board of directors for the Nipomo Community Services District voted 4-1 on Feb. 13 to approve a $14.1-million financial plan for the first phase of an inter-tie pipeline to bring water from Santa Maria to the thirsty community.

Funding for the project will come from a mix of grants, bonds, existing tax revenue, and a fund for replacing water infrastructure. The board also voted 4-1 to authorize bidding on the project; 5-0 to authorize agreements with a law firm and a public finance adviser for legal and financial advice on the project; and 3-2 to consider ending a moratorium on processing water-service applications.

During the meeting, Michael Seitz, legal counsel for the district, said the potential reopening of water-service applications for developers became legally possible when the board approved the pipeline. Director Bob Blair, who voted yes, stressed that he wanted development that had been under way before the moratorium—such as an assisted living center whose proponents spoke at the meeting—to continue, without opening the way for all new applications.

Blair also cast the dissenting votes against the pipeline project and against opening bidding for its construction, noting that voters last year rejected a larger pipeline plan that included additional taxes.

Blair said the project is something the voters don’t want and that approving it could come back to bite the board. According to the meeting’s agenda, funding to complete the first phase was available without raising taxes, which would have required a new vote.

The plan’s supporters at the meeting included Paavo Ogren, director of San Luis Obispo County Public Works. In public comment, he told the board that the $2.2 million set aside for the inter-tie pipeline was an integral part of a California Department of Water Resources grant of more than $10 million for the region, including San Luis Obispo County. He explained that failure to follow through on the pipeline could put funding for two other projects in the county in jeopardy.

During a later board discussion, Blair said Nipomo had been looking into a water project for more than 10 years and that he never dreamed it would take this long.

Before the meeting, Nipomo Community Services District General Manager Michael LeBrun emphasized the town’s need for new water sources.

“We pump groundwater right now,” he said. “We have historically pumped up to almost 3,000 acre-feet of groundwater. We’re below those numbers now, but we consider ourselves to have every right to access that much groundwater.

“At the same time, we think that clearly there is a problem with over-pumping of the groundwater basin up on the mesa, and, in order to protect our long-term availability of that groundwater, we want to supplement it,” he added, “and that’s why we’re bringing in water now.”

An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons, which LeBrun reckoned could support “two to three residential homes”—the difference being whether they’re in a golf-course or a mobile home community.

The district’s decisions came after the presentation of a preliminary report by the Supplemental Water Alternatives Evaluation Committee, which consists of seven expert voting members and two non-voting staff members. LeBrun stressed that this committee’s work was one part of a comprehensive planning process that’s taken years to complete; only now have all the designs, permits, and environmental documents been completed.

According to a document released as part of the committee’s initial findings, phase one of the Santa Maria inter-tie pipeline received the highest feasibility score, along with the full inter-tie pipeline that voters rejected last year. Phase one of the Santa Maria inter-tie plan was compared to 20 other water augmentation alternatives, and the scores were based on a slew of ratings, from cost considerations to sustainability and public support.

The committee’s final report is expected at the next board meeting on Feb. 27.

Now that the board voted to move forward with the inter-tie project, officials project bidding to commence this month and end in March.

Despite this, LeBrun said, “bidding a project results in very little expenditure on behalf of the district and does not commit the district to the inter-tie pipeline.”

The board will review the bids in April, and, assuming they choose one, the construction contract will be signed on April 24.

“The big spending decision is in the end of April. Once we have bids in, we see where those bids stand relative to our current cost opinions, which are that this project’s construction and non-construction costs will be on the order of $14 million,” LeBrun added.

If all goes accordingly, construction will start in May 2013 and run to September 2014. Once completed, the pipeline is expected to carry between 650 and 900 acre-feet of water per year, all purchased from the city of Santa Maria. That amount of water is well below the 2,500 acre-feet per year mandated by a judge in a settlement over water rights in the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin.

The order stems from a suit filed by the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District against the city of Santa Maria and the Nipomo Community Services District to preserve water quality in the basin. A memorandum of understanding states that the NCSD must buy 2,500 acre-feet per year from Santa Maria.

“[The figure of 2,500 acre-feet per year] can be adjusted up or down by a technical group that oversees the management of this area of the basin,” LeBrun said.

The second and third phases of the project should push the numbers up into the judge’s required levels.

The larger $28-million project voters turned down in June last year would have brought Nipomo 6,000 acre-feet per year.

LeBrun stressed that the district didn’t see the approved pipeline as the end to Nipomo’s search for water: “We look out decades [at the district]. It is my task to supply this community with potable water for the foreseeable future—that’s ad infinitum,” he said.

As an example of the board’s foresight, LeBrun mentioned the goal of increasing the network of inter-tie pipelines to connect not only Santa Maria and Nipomo, but also other local communities and their water sources. He sees the board pursuing a regional desalinization plant within 20 years. ∆

Frank Gonzales is an intern at the Sun, New Times’ sister paper to the south. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.