Water at risk: Salinas River erosion jeopardizes Paso Robles city wellfield


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Perspiring in the sweltering North County heat, Paso Robles Water Resources Manager Chris Alakel tromps down the middle of the parched Salinas River on June 22 until he comes to a halt at a point along its western bank.

"The way the water comes by here is different now," Alakel says, surveying the stretch of bank that Mother Nature has molded into a 20-foot-tall sheer wall of soft river sediment. "It's running directly at the banks ... Before, the energy wasn't directed at the bank; it was flowing along the bank. It's a straight shot now."

ERODING Chris Alakel, water resources manager for the city of Paso Robles, stands in the Salinas River, where rapid erosion of the bank is threatening to damage or destroy a wellfield that pumps about half of the city's water. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ERODING Chris Alakel, water resources manager for the city of Paso Robles, stands in the Salinas River, where rapid erosion of the bank is threatening to damage or destroy a wellfield that pumps about half of the city's water.

Alakel then turns his gaze upward to the top of the cliff: Just a few feet from the edge is a barbed-wire fence. Inside that fence, five Paso Robles city wells are humming and pumping the water below the river's surface. At 1.5 billion gallons per year, the wells produce half of all Paso Robles' water—piped from this site near Firestone Brewery (called the Thunderbird Wellfield) to city homes and businesses.

Now, the precipitous erosion of the riverbank is threatening to damage or even destroy the operation.

"One more rain and we lose a well," Alakel says.

Officials noticed the erosion start to accelerate in 2011. Episodes of rain ripped more and more material off the bank, which in turn only invited more of the river's energy with a more forceful impact. After receding as much as 70 feet in six years, the bank lost 30 feet during the rains in March of this year, according to the city.

"Rivers gradually change over time," said Dick McKinley, Paso's public works director. "It had been doing it a little bit, but nothing really alarming until this round of storms. We lost a large, large chunk of bank. ... We're still OK, but we're not going to be OK unless we do something about it."

Paso City Council members voted unanimously on June 19 to approve $750,000 in spending for an "emergency stabilization" project that its staff believes will halt the erosion. The plan is to special order 10,000 tons of boulders from a quarry and place them along the bank. At 25 tons of maximum weight per dump truck, that's 400 truck trips. Before the boulders can go in, workers will first have to smoothen out the slope of the bank to give it a more gradual incline.

The project is expected to take four months and drain city water fund reserves by 20 percent—a financial hit that's likely to impact residents' water rates at some point, McKinley acknowledged.

"Buying boulders is expensive," McKinley said, "and it's hundreds of feet of shoreline."

Alakel told New Times that it's critical for the project to get completed before next winter's rains. Clearing state and federal regulatory hurdles is the first challenge. The city submitted emergency applications with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, and is awaiting permits to commence. The process for an emergency permit goes like this: The Army Corps of Engineers consults with myriad agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and the state Historic Preservation Office to assess the potential impacts of the project and add conditions to it.

"They should be able to take all that, wrap it in a permit, and provide that to the city," said Mike Hill, a senior biologist for Althouse and Meade, a local firm assisting Paso with the permitting process.

Ashley Spratt, a public information officer with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, noted that emergency situations are treated a little differently than other projects. Her agency is looking out for rare and endangered wildlife like the San Joaquin kit fox and California red-legged frog. But it won't ask for a mitigation measure from the city that would "interfere with alleviating the emergency"—in this case, stopping the riverbank erosion.

"After the emergency has abated, the Army Corps of Engineers would assess whether or not federally-protected species were impacted by the project, and work with Fish and Wildlife to address those impacts if needed," Spratt said.

In addition to impacts to critters, Hill said regulators are also concerned about the southern steelhead trout and cultural resources that may be at the project site: "Native Americans were known to use the Salinas River corridor," he said.

As Alakel trudged down the barren Salinas River back toward his office inside the barbed-wire fence, he articulated the urgency of this problem and the stakes in play. Paso's wellfield is in a unique geological location that can't really be found elsewhere in the area. The city also recently unveiled a water treatment plant at the site that treats Lake Nacimiento water and pipes it to residents.

"We've got so much invested in this. It's one of the most valuable pieces of real estate the city owns," Alakel said. "I've looked up and down this river for other suitable locations to drill wells that have good water quality, that have a nice sandy area where I can drill. I can't find any. This is it. This is a gem that we have." Δ

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



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