A dry November: Candidates vying for two Cambria Community Services District seats talk about the town's water woes



When election time comes, Cambria residents will be tasked with choosing candidates to fill the two open seats on the Cambria Community Services District’s five-member board of directors. There are four candidates on the ballot, and two write-in candidates. The decisions made at the ballot box will likely reflect a multitude of sentiments about how the CSD has gone about and plans to go about coping with an uncertain water supply and the looming possibility of an even more severe water shortage.

Candidates include, in alphabetical order, Jim Bahringer, incumbent, current board president, retired businessman and college professor; Rick Hawley, executive director of Greenspace, the Cambria Land Trust; Jeff Hellman, retired electronic security professional; Steve Kniffen, write-in candidate, chef and general manager at Sea Chest Oyster Bar; Mike Thompson, incumbent, retired small-business owner and criminal justice official; and write-in candidate Jeff Walters, massage therapist. New Times was unsuccessful in reaching Walters for this article.

New Times sent two questions, each pertaining to Cambria’s troubled water situation, to the candidates via email. The community has been wrestling with attempts to figure out long-term water supply options for two decades, and their shallow wells and secluded geographical location have made finding fresh water a significant—and often controversial—challenge. The ongoing drought has exacerbated the situation, prompting the CSD board to declare a Stage 3 water shortage emergency. Early projections identified the possibility of Cambria running out of water sometime in late 2014, causing the community to drastically reduce water use, which has effectively delayed that risk.

Over the summer, the CSD approved an Emergency Water Supply Project that will process brackish water and treated effluent. The project is currently under construction via an emergency permit issued by the county, which will expire Nov. 15, subjecting the project to normal permitting and mitigation requirements from a slew of regulatory agencies.


NEW TIMES: What’s your opinion of the current Emergency Water Supply Project? Considering time constraints, cost, and environmental impacts, is it an appropriate project?

BAHRINGER: This project is entirely appropriate; it is environmentally friendly and is much less energy intensive than desalinating ocean water. We were lucky to have in hand a preferred alternative from the Army Corps of Engineers who ranked over 30 options studied from a cost and environmental perspective. We moved decisively to construct the advanced water treatment plant to get it online in six months. This will provide much needed relief to the health and safety concerns facing our citizens during this time of extreme drought.

HAWLEY: I think the current water project is not for emergencies but rather a full-blown Public Works project. It has not produced a single drop of water but instead has wasted nearly 30 acre-feet of water during its construction. We will not see water from this project until 2015 or even later. The environmental impacts are still unknown and the project continues to escalate in costs.

HELLMAN: I support an Emergency Water Supply Project, especially the advanced water treatment project, which this project is. This project does not tap into the ocean or discharge into the ocean. It uses treated effluent, brackish water, and some fresh water. It should be emphasized that this is an EMERGENCY water supply project, and on this basis I support it. It should be used when there is no other alternative, for example, for prolonged drought or system malfunctions, when no other source of water is available.

KNIFFEN: I hate the emergency water project. Why should I pay to treat my water when God sends it out of the sky for free? Well, because God hasn’t sent any rain lately and we know God helps those who help themselves. Is this answer too “tongue and cheek” for you? Sorry, but if it does not rain this year, the directors of the CCSD are going to be hailed as brilliant, because we are going to have water to flush our toilets when the rest of the state will be using Honey Huts. The lesson is do it now, it won’t get any cheaper.

THOMPSON: The current emergency water project is entirely appropriate; it will process brackish water, using proven technology, which has been endorsed by the environmental group, Greenspace. Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System that began in 2008 has supplied water to 20 percent of the district’s 2.4 million residents, using less than one-third of the energy needed to desalinate ocean water and less than one-half the energy needed to import water from Northern California. Fire personnel are also concerned about having adequate water to meet potential fire emergencies and support the project to protect homes and families during this time of extreme drought.


NEW TIMES: What do you consider to be both the best and most feasible long-term water supply option for Cambria’s future? How will this jive with the myriad requirements and regulations mandated by agencies like the California Coastal Commission and State Parks?

BAHRINGER: Once permitted for more regular use, this plant will enable Cambrians to lead a more normal life while protecting the environmental impact that this extended drought has had. Future enhancements proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers may include solar panels to offset power demands, and possibly replace the project’s evaporation pond with an off-site pipeline. The evaporation pond could then provide 24 acre-feet of fresh water storage suitable for fire fighting. I proposed the use of “bladder tanks” as used in the military for storing fuel. Each tank holds 220,000 gallons of water, no evaporation loss, reasonably permit free, and deployable in 60 days or less.

HAWLEY: The best long-term and least environmentally damaging water project is three-fold. More storage, continued conservation, and water reuse. The treated, reuse irrigation water delivered in purple pipes would cut down on potable water use by as much as 40 percent. Using portable brackish water reverse osmosis systems during extreme emergencies is appropriate. All projects can meet the standards of public safety and environmental regulations.

HELLMAN: I would like to see storage as our first method of backup, a reservoir. In case of prolonged drought where storage dries up, I support the advanced water treatment plant. Projects can be completed, but we do need, however, to work with county and state agencies to make sure we are protecting the environment. Our board is doing end runs around state agencies on the current project and trying to complete a three-year project in six months. They disregarded warnings from state agencies to work with them. Rushing a project will create problems. If we patiently work with agencies, we will prevail.

KNIFFEN: The most feasible option is rain. If that is a no-go, then let’s get in the time machine and go back to 1985 and build a reservoir big enough to supply the whole region with natural God-given water. The most productive and feasible options have been taken away from us, so whatever little bit of production of water we can make will have to do, no matter how expensive it is. If the regulatory agencies don’t like it, ask them if they have any better ideas. Regulatory agencies need to have solutions, not just observatory objections.

THOMPSON: The current project is being built to address the immediate extreme drought emergency. The Army Corps of Engineers did a study of permanent supplemental water options, and five projects were identified. Cambria’s project is a modified version of the Corps’ Alternative No. 5, and subject to the Corps’ remaining environmental analysis. The long-term project will likely consist of enhancements to the emergency project. These may include solar panels to offset power demands and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, burying temporary pipelines, enclosing equipment, and determining the possibility of replacing the emergency project’s evaporation pond with an off-site pipeline.


Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade 

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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