It’s no secret that anyone can go to the California Valley Community Service District’s little well and fill up for all their drinking, bathing, or irrigating needs. And it’s free.
It may sound bizarre at first, especially for the driest region in the already drought-stricken San Luis Obispo County. But things are done a little differently in the county’s isolated, sparsely populated southeastern corner.
The well has long been a lifeline for residents of the valley’s eastern side, where high levels of poisonous salts such as arsenic make the groundwater toxic. So for years residents of the two dozen homes on that side have relied on the California Valley Community Service District’s (CVCSD) office well or another source.
But the rapid proliferation of legal medical marijuana grows planted in recent months throughout the valley floor has led to a new demand on the watering hole, and residents fear it may be too much.
This new demand is one symptom of a situation that’s escalated into a code enforcement sweep and led Sheriff Ian Parkinson to pressure the Board of Supervisors to ban new grows.
It’s also drawn sharp lines between those who consider the growers to be unwelcome shady outsiders and those who acknowledge that the newcomers have a right to use their property as they see fit.
“There’s way more of them than there is of us,” said David Webb, a longtime resident whose wife, Ro, is a CVCSD board director.
The Webbs live on the east side and bring in water from elsewhere. Webb is an outspoken critic of growers, including the new water demand.
“I’ll walk around with my little one-and-a-half gallon bucket watering my trees and bushes, and they’re all stunted,” Webb told New Times, “and then I see a water truck go by and I think, ‘Well, there goes 5,000 gallons.’”
Many of the marijuana grows are planted on 2.5-acre lots without wells and need to truck water in to irrigate. Several landowners in the area, including the local hotel, have been selling water by the truckload. Other growers are filling up at the CVCSD office.
The demand already led to at least two well pumps being replaced, and residents say water is pulling at a slower level. Cal Fire, which has a station next to and shares a well with the CVCSD office, is considering drilling its own well to ensure reliable access to water for firefighting purposes.
The situation has prompted a recommendation that the CVCSD apply for legal water authority over water and potential fees. The application would be submitted to the SLO County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees the creation of and changes to local government agencies.
During the CVCSD’s Aug. 2 meeting, Board Chair Lisa Marrone said the additional powers could allow the CSD to control who gets water and to charge for it. She pictured a filling station with a graded pad that vehicles can pull up to, an overhead valve to fill trucks or large tanks, and a hose for all the rest, all regulated by a self-service system that takes payments with a credit card reader.
“If we shut it down, we cut off our friends and neighbors,” she said.
The recent meeting marked the idea’s first time before the board. Marrone asked her fellow directors to suspend the rules—which normally require the item to be discussed before further consideration and final approval on a later date—and vote immediately to approve the item.
The water power idea was quickly complicated after several residents and members of the board posed specific questions about what the change in authority would look like. The board eventually decided on no action and to reconsider in September.
Some residents called the complicated proposal excessive and futile.
“There’s plenty of places to get water,” one resident said at the Aug. 2 meeting. “The only reason people are using that water is because it’s free. And now you want a water district out of it. Are you kidding me?”
Some residents insisted that those who need water should drill a well; others suggested locking the valve and only giving keys to residents. Webb, who said he supports applying to LAFCO for the water power, isn’t sure if that’d do the job because those thirsty for water may just cut the lock off or pay someone with access to procure it.
Other residents worry that if any party pushes it too far, the situation may wade into a gray legal area and make things even more convoluted. If the board eventually does obtain water authority, it could become costly to pay for staff and monitoring. Plus, that authority would make the district liable for any harmful contaminants that may come out of the well.
Webb said he’s hoping the situation will somehow work itself out.
“California Valley, for some reason, gets the worst of the worst things that we’ve had to deal with out here. It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “We’re kind of stuck between our place and a rock. We’re just living with it and hoping it will go away.”
Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay