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Permitting is not the point

The Cambria CSD made a series of bad decisions that led us to where we are now with the Water Reclamation Facility

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Last week's edition of the New Times (May 30) delves into the question of why the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) seems to be having such a difficult time completing a coastal cevelopment permit application for the water treatment plant, currently called the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) located on San Simeon Creek Road. It's an interesting read.

It appears to us that the purpose of Cambria's WRF has morphed from its original stated purpose "to serve existing authorized water connections only" to something else entirely. It seems like rather than focusing on protecting existing residents in the event of another severe drought, the CCSD's primary goal is to use the never-ending permitting process to defend the CCSD against lawsuits from unhappy lot owners. As long as the CCSD can make the argument that it's "trying really hard" to secure a permit allowing unlimited use of the WRF, it will have some protection from those lot owners and their lawyers.

The WRF was constructed under an emergency permit in 2014. As of June 2024, nearly 10 years later, the CCSD has been unable or unwilling to complete said permit application. Our neighbors in Morro Bay have permitted and constructed a much larger WRF in recent years. Morro Bay applied for its permit in February 2019, and it was issued in July of that year, less than six months later. Morro Bay's entire process, from the adoption of an environmental impact report to having a functional, operational facility, took less than six years. Why was Morro Bay able to develop a much larger and more complex facility in a few short years while our CCSD struggles with permitting issues 10 years later?

We think that Cambria's current difficulty stems from a series of bad decisions made by CCSD leadership over the past 40 years. Here's the CliffsNotes version:

By the mid 1980s it had become apparent that Cambria had a water problem. The only sources of potable water for the community were two small aquifers, fed by San Simeon Creek on the north end of town and Santa Rosa Creek to the south. Entirely dependent on these two water sources, Cambria's water supply lives and dies by each year's rainfall. When it became apparent that the existing aquifers could not support additional development, a water waitlist was established in 1986. For an annual administrative fee of $88, the owners of vacant parcels could "get in line" for a water meter once a new source of municipal water could be developed. The waitlist, which was closed in 1990, currently has a total of 768 residential parcels on it, according to the CCSD website, plus additional commercial parcels.

Bad Decision 1 was creating a waitlist, and therefore the expectation, that the CCSD would, at some point, provide water that it had no idea how to obtain. Cambria's lack of water for new development was legitimized in 2001 with the establishment of a formal building moratorium.

One of the problems with the waitlist is that there remained more than a thousand legal parcels in Cambria that would never become buildable due to a lack of water service.

Bad Decision 2 was the CCSD's adoption of the buildout reduction program as part of its water master plan. The concept behind the plan was that Cambria, through a combination of taxes, assessments, and grants, would purchase and then retire those lots. In the event that CCSD did begin issuing new water meters to parcels on the waitlist, the CCSD would become obligated for potentially millions of dollars in lot purchases.

Then, in 2014, amid a serious drought, came the granddaddy of bad decisions.

Bad Decision 3 involved the CCSD convincing ratepayers not to object to borrowing nearly $9 million to partly fund the construction of an "emergency water supply" facility to serve, per the Proposition 218 ballot measure description, "Existing customers within CCSD's service area." The facility was constructed under an emergency permit from the county. To be brief, it was constructed in possibly the worst location available, designated environmentally sensitive habitat, using maybe the worst technology available. The facility was designed to take water out of an already depleted creek and estuary system filled with endangered and special status species, mix it with treated wastewater, and purify it, leaving behind large quantities of evaporated brine waste to be disposed of at a licensed hazardous waste facility.

Bad Decision 4 came in 2017, with the failure of the brine waste holding pond, and the need to truck the liquid brine waste to a distant disposal facility at great expense. The CCSD's then board of directors took that opportunity to change the purpose of the project from drought protection for existing users to "build out" the addition of 800-plus new residential and commercial developments. This action raised the bar substantially for all the required permitting, as it would require nearly year-round operation of the facility, with its attendant environmental and financial impacts on the community.

This little history lesson brings us to the current day, and what we consider to be Bad Decision 5. About a year ago, a reconstituted CCSD board directed staff to revise the purpose of the facility, as stated in the "project description," back to its original intent, to provide drought protection for existing customers. However, the current project description, as proposed by staff, and apparently supported by the board, states that the purpose of the facility is to "meet CCSD's existing commitments." What does that even mean? Is the waitlist an "existing commitment"? Is the very expensive Buildout Reduction Plan an existing commitment? Who knows? We have asked the board and staff to define what exactly constitutes an existing commitment and haven't yet received a response.

Most observers seem to agree that the likelihood that the WRF could ever provide enough water to support "buildout" without bankrupting the ratepayers and the environment is somewhere between slim and none. Similarly, most observers agree that the notion that Cambrians would vote to tax themselves to finance the buildout reduction plan is equally unlikely. But when the lawsuits from waterless lot owners come, as they have in the past and will almost certainly continue to come in the future, the board and its legal counsel can point to 10 years of "working really hard" to permit the WRF for growth as a defense. Δ

Jim Townsend is a member of Protect Cambria, a group of residents who are concerned about the town's future. To respond with a letter for publication, email it to [email protected].

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