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Less water, more problems: Some SLO residents question the city's ability to develop with its current water resources 

Rain was pouring down, much to the delight of a group gathered at the Steynberg Gallery on Jan. 8 to hear another argument against future development in San Luis Obispo. 

Retired Cal Poly Associate Dean of Architecture Allan Cooper and SLO residents Robert Lucas and Bob Shanbrom led the talk. Their main point: SLO envisions more housing and employment opportunities, according to the 2015 update to the city’s general plan, but doesn’t have sufficient water resources to support that development. Cooper said that the city is already undergoing conservation efforts, and its residents are surpassing the restrictions leveled by both the city and the state. He added that the reservoirs providing the city with water are already stressed because of the prolonged drought, and increasing the population and housing opportunities will only add to that stress. Although the motive for build-out is economic growth, Cooper said the city hasn’t fully thought about the effect it will have on its water resource. 

“The simple answer is the myth popular with the Chamber [of Commerce] and the development community: that San Luis Obispo has to grow in order to maintain its vibrant economy,” Cooper said. 

The economy can still thrive without growth, he said, because a population of well-compensated government and city employees contribute to the economy. 

“Cal Poly professors earn $126,000 per year. In 2014, 2,600 SLO County employees averaged $100,000 per year,” Cooper said. 

Aaron Floyd, deputy director of the city’s Utilities Department, said that he commends the community and the city for water conservation efforts, brought about in part because of state mandates.

“All we [the city of SLO] had to do to, to meet the state requirements, was a 12 percent reduction,” Floyd said. “In fact, through voluntary actions alone the community has done a 21 percent reduction.” 

The need for reduction in water usage isn’t going away and is something the city takes into consideration when thinking about new development, he said. 

But Cooper didn’t just talk about water use on Jan. 8, he also spoke about the community’s concern about increasing water rates, even as conservation efforts were so great. 

“It’s important to remember that utility and water services are not for profit; about 80 to 85 percent of the rate is a fixed cost,” Floyd said.

  According to the city of SLO’s website, water and sewer services are operated as an enterprise fund, meaning revenue to support operations and improvements come from ratepayers or the residents of the city. 

The city has four resources for water, which include Whale Rock Reservoir, Salinas Reservoir, and Nacimiento Reservoir, as well as recycled water used for irrigation, and groundwater can serve as a fifth supplemental source. At the Jan. 8 talk, SLO resident Shanbrom highlighted the effects the drought has had on Lake Nacimiento, a source of water that the city shares with Monterey County. He said the current drought has only produced about 62 percent of normal rainfall; because of that, Nacimiento was at 17 percent of its capacity in 2015. He said the climate is expected to get drier, and the possibility of another drought is high.

“The aquifer won’t recharge with short spates of heavy rainfall, and this will become the norm,” Shanbrom said.

Floyd with the Utilities Department told New Times that Nacimiento is currently at 51 percent capacity. He said that the lake is a surface water reservoir, so it does need rain to fill up. But SLO’s claim on that water source is secure because Monterey County, which operates the reservoir, put a mark within the reservoir. In the event that water levels in the reservoir are so low that Monterey can’t discharge any water, as long as the water level hits that mark, the city of SLO is still allowed its allocation. 

“So it really is—when you look at it that way—a pretty darn secure water source. With that being said, it is a surface water reservoir, so I think if it never rained at all it’d be a problem,” Floyd said. 

Through its contract with Monterey County, the city receives approximately 5,500 acre-feet of water from Nacimiento every year. In this past year, the city used approximately 4,700 acre-feet of water, and 63 percent of that water went toward single and multi-family residential uses. 

Newly elected SLO City Councilmember Andy Pease, who attended the Jan. 8 discussion, said she believes the city has been responsible about water use, water protection, and development decisions.

“At the same time, I think our climate is unpredictable, and no matter what, water is a precious resource and we can find ways to use it more responsibly,” she said. 

The big take-home, she said, is that using water conservatively, regardless of development or not, is important, and living sustainably is something she hopes to work toward alongside her fellow council members. 

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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