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Inside Pismo Beach's plan to revitalize the Santa Maria groundwater basin 

The Pismo Beach City Council wants to build a $28 million facility that will purify Pismo Beach and South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District wastewater and inject it into the Santa Maria groundwater basin. If completed, it will prevent salt water from seeping into one of South County's water sources and provide more water to South County residents.

click to enlarge RECLAIMING WATER Water Systems Consulting Engineer Dan Heimel leads a tour of 20 people in front of the water recycling demonstration facility. - PHOTO BY AIDAN MCGLOIN
  • Photo By Aidan McGloin
  • RECLAIMING WATER Water Systems Consulting Engineer Dan Heimel leads a tour of 20 people in front of the water recycling demonstration facility.

"People up and down the coast are looking to use technology like this in the light of climate change and hydrological change," Water Systems Consulting engineer Dan Heimel said during a Feb. 1 tour of the demonstration facility.

The plant will filter water three times: through microfiltration, allowing only water to pass through tiny pores; reverse osmosis, to remove salt; and ultraviolet advanced oxidation, to kill any remaining compounds. Wells will inject the purified water 200 to 400 feet into the groundwater basin, and after two years in the basin it can be used by South County cities.

Heimel estimated that the plant will take 30 months to construct, and, by the time it's finished, will increase municipal groundwater supplies by 30 percent and reduce wastewater discharged to the ocean by 77 percent.

Groundwater drifts through small cracks underneath the ground. When people draw too much water from wells, or when not enough water soaks into the ground, the basin can sink, allowing salt water to seep in.

Oceano Beach Community Association President Cynthia Replogle voiced concerns over the project at a Pismo City Council meeting on Jan. 15. Replogle believes the proposed location of the plant will flood due to sea level rise caused by global warming, and that project leaders should choose a new site.

"It's just a fact that the plant will have to move due to sea level rise," said Replogle, who also serves on the Oceano Community Services District (CSD) board of directors. "Maybe 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, we don't know. But it doesn't make sense to put in new infrastructure in that location when we know the plant is going to have to move."

The planned location of the facility is at the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Treatment Plant, according to a Jan. 9 presentation District Administrator Jeremy Ghent made to the CSD board. The plant, at 1600 Aloha Place, is on Oceano's 100-year flood plain.

Sea level rise south of Cape Mendocino in Northern California is expected to be between 2 and 12 inches by 2030, 5 and 24 inches by 2050, and 17 by 66 inches by 2100, according to the November 2018 Draft Local Hazard Mitigation Plan for the Oceano Community Services District.

Pismo Beach Public Works Director Ben Fine told New Times that he's not worried about the facility being permanently flooded, but he has been searching for alternate locations where it could be built.

"We have been looking for another site. In a perfect world, the facility would be located outside of the floodplain and outside of the coastal zone," Fine said at a Feb. 1 Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting. "That is our desire. Finding a property suitable with an owner who's willing to sell or enter into an option agreement has proven very difficult."

Replogle is unsure of how the project will benefit Oceano, which is supporting the project and used 21 acre-feet of groundwater in 2017, according to the Northern Cities Management Area 2017 Annual Monitoring Report. The majority of Oceano's water, 697 acre-feet in 2017, is taken out of Lopez Lake.

Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, Oceano, and rural and agricultural residents used 3,456 acre-feet of groundwater from the Santa Maria basin in 2017, about 40 percent of their total water use. Lopez provides 53 percent of their total water.

Even though groundwater use has declined since 2007 due to a slow economy and conservation efforts, the report's authors predicted that the groundwater basin has little ability to withstand droughts or increases in pumping. The Nipomo Mesa, which historically feeds into the basin, has less surface and subsurface flows to recharge into the basin every year.

Changing weather patterns and precipitation, including prolonged droughts and insufficient rainfall, are forcing communities to create backup plans for water, Regional Water Quality Control Board Assistant Executive Officer Matthew Keeling said.

"It's a very precious resource, and in some places it's becoming finite," Keeling said.

Even though seawater intrusion is at bay for now, a 2009 incident of intrusion in the basin was enough to send warning signals to protect the water South County has, Keeling said.

More than that, he added, there should be ongoing outreach and education about the need to conserve water.

"We all should be more conscious of and use less water—that should be the No. 1 thing people should be looking at," Keeling said. Δ

Editorial Intern Aidan McGloin can be reached through New Times Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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