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Playing with water 

Cambria should declare a Stage 5 drought emergency and restrict water use

Cambria is at very real risk of running out of water until the first rain, and yet the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) counterintuitively seems to have decided to do nothing about the possibility. Instead the CCSD should declare a Stage 5 emergency and configure an accompanying policy to significantly restrict demand for the rest of the year.

Unlike other towns in the county, Cambria relies entirely on two streams—Santa Rosa and San Simeon creeks—for its supply of water, and these are getting dangerously low as we move through the summer. The drought has meant that even what rain we did get during the winter was heavily concentrated in one storm, and we have gotten virtually nothing since.

As a result, the CCSD declared a Stage 4 water emergency, which nevertheless only gives guidelines for conservation and provides for no real penalties for those who use of a lot of water. And yet, the level of the streams is now such that, were they to be applied as indicated, we should have moved to Stage 5, or even Stage 6, by now, which would imply serious surcharges on the excessive use of water. But the district has declined to do so.

In fact, it is now clear that—from communications that are publicly available—management has had no intention of making such a policy recommendation. Any informed citizen might ask why, given the frightening implications of literally running the town out of water.

It might seem comforting that we can always use the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF)—a multimillion-dollar plant whose name changes as often as the tide comes in—which after all was originally designed for just such a case as this. It is sad to say, however, that faith in this fallback is misplaced, since the use of the WRF would require no less than three months, including a minimum of 60 days to allow for the required percolation down San Simeon Creek. That would take us into early December.

Given this, an inquiring mind might ask why, given that the situation has been clear for some time, the process of restarting the plant was not implemented months ago. At the very least, it would have been possible to test the plant, which—having been mothballed for years—might not even be functional.

One possible answer is economic in nature. Cambria is, after all, a tourist town, and after taking a huge loss of revenue during the COVID-19 crisis, the restaurants, hotels, and shops are just getting back to normal levels of business this summer. As anyone who tries to find a parking place in town on any given weekend knows, people are flocking into town from the Central Valley, not to mention Paso Robles and Atascadero—escaping the heat all the while apparently ignoring the significant threat of the Delta variant of the virus.

The pressure of this must be great. The residents of Cambria have continued to engage in a remarkable level of conservation, while—according to the engineering department of the district—the commercial sector has much more that might be done. Again, it is certainly understandable that pressure now to restrict demand on the tourist facilities after they have just gotten back up to some sense of normal revenue growth would be daunting, but by rolling the dice that we just might get through seems callous at best. At the very least, the district needs to be honest with residents about its intentions.

Another possible answer on why there might have been reluctance to start up the WRF is again economic in nature. The plant, when operated, can be expected to create a large amount of toxic effluent, which would need to be hauled to a site willing to accept it—at great cost to the CCSD. Estimates vary, of course, but numbers around a million dollars are often cited, money it might be hard for already stretched ratepayers to stomach.

At this point, however, starting the plant, even if it turns out to be functional, is moot, given the long lag time before even a drop of water could be produced. Even the desperate potential option of purchasing water from outside as we run out presumes others would in fact sell us what at that time would be an extremely scarce resource.

All is not lost, however. It is not too late now to consider declaring a Stage 5 emergency, and configuring a complementary policy so as to restrict demand in such a way that there is a good chance of our getting through the rest of the year. Stage 5 even as written would at least restrict commercial use to 75 percent of prior utilization. Doing anything less is continuing to play with water. Δ

Richard Rich writes to New Times under a pseudonym from Cambria. Respond to "Richard" through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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