Turning off the tap: Why SLO County spent way less than was budgeted for water conservation in Los Osos



Nestled in the coastal hills above the Los Osos Valley—removed from the “prohibition zone,” where 4,500 households are on the hook for a $183-million sewer plant—is the Cabrillo Estates, an upscale Los Osos neighborhood overlooking the Morro Bay Estuary.

Those who live in the Cabrillo neighborhood aren’t paying a dime to San Luis Obispo County for the new Los Osos Wastewater Plant, yet they drink the water drawn from the Los Osos Groundwater Basin. 

Once treated effluent from the plant begins pumping into the ground to replenish the basin’s lower aquifer and deter seawater intrusion, those particular Los Osos residents will reap the benefits of a healthier water basin without paying for that element of its recovery as the majority of the community did.

Bruce Gibson, SLO County’s 3rd District Supervisor, cites this inequity as a key reason behind a recent development that’s brought about scrutiny from the community and regulators: spending on a Los Osos Water Conservation Program has essentially come to a halt.

The Water Conservation Program was a requirement imposed by the California Coastal Commission, a condition tacked onto the Los Osos Wastewater Project’s Coastal Development Permit (CDP). The CDP mandated that SLO County spend $5 million to implement a conservation program that effectively “limited indoor water use to 50 gallons per person per day” in Los Osos.

To date, SLO County has spent only $1.4 million on the program. Starting in 2012, the county began offering rebates for “low flow” showerheads, faucet aerators, toilets, and washing machines in both residential and commercial zones.

Across the board, the rebate programs replaced less than half of the number of fixtures that were set as targets. But, in retrospect, officials say those original estimates were overstated. While still awaiting official data, the county believes that the program has achieved its 50-gallon per capita per day goal. 

While SLO County says the conservation condition has been met, the Coastal Commission disagrees.

Daniel Robinson, a planner at the Coastal Commission, told New Times that the agency will push SLO County to continuing spending that conservation money—and soon. The CDP condition also reads that the program should, generally, “help basin residents to reduce their potable water use as much as possible.” Robinson said that outdoor water conservation efforts fall under the umbrella of the program as well.

“The $5 million has to be spent,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot more to be done.”

Patrick McGibney, an executive committee member for the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, has publicly advocated for the addition of a rebate program to incentivize the repurposing of septic tanks. As residents connect to the new sewer, many are deciding to decommission their tanks, which means filling them with sand. Septic tanks have the potential to be repurposed as cisterns for outdoor irrigation—and even simply preserving them for future use can be less expensive than a decommission.

McGibney argues that if SLO County offers a $500 rebate to homeowners for septic tank repurposing, then more homeowners will participate. So far, 22 percent of the tanks have been repurposed.

“We’re worried that not enough is being done to save our basin,” McGibney told the Board of Supervisors during public comment at a May 24 meeting. “The CDP states that $5 million will be spent on conservation measures. Spend it.”

Supervisor Gibson said he’s reluctant to further burden the prohibition zone properties with more spending connected to the sewer fund. Any leftover funds from the $5 million program could go toward lowering sewer bills for residents, Gibson said.

“The cost of doing water conservation needs to be borne by everybody,” Gibson said.

SLO County obtained more than $20 million in state and federal grants to help pay for the sewer project, but officials say it would rather redeem those grants as soon as possible for already-incurred costs—not use them for more water conservation under the CDP.

“We want to close the grants out and get that money reimbursed to the project,” said John Waddell, the wastewater plant’s project manager. “We don’t want that grant money hanging out there, [because] you never know with the state. It could go away.”

Waddell said he understands the concerns about the water conservation program.

“There is a water issue in Los Osos, and there’s the feeling that we should be doing everything we can,” Waddell said. “To see this money not being used, I think the feeling is that if we have budget available, let’s use it.”

Nevertheless, Gibson plans to make the case to the Coastal Commission that the county’s conservation program served its purpose and is complete.

Gibson looks toward the Los Osos Basin Management Committee (BMC), the agency composed of the three water purveyors in Los Osos and SLO County, to devise a new water conservation program that will include both indoor and outdoor water use as part of the broader, court-approved Los Osos Basin Management Plan. The committee hopes to fund that initiative through a special tax on all of the Los Osos Water Basin users—including those in the Cabrillo Estates. It will likely go to the public for a Proposition 218 vote next year.

Gibson said he is willing to loan the BMC some county funds to get that conservation program started sooner if necessary.

“If we have a conservation plan ready to go, I’m more than happy to front some money,” he said. 

Staff Writer Peter Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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