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Cambria desal faces hurdles

Cambria officials seek federal funding for controversial desalination project

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Reinvigorate” was the word of the day at the July 28 Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors meeting. It was used repeatedly by directors, staff, and the lobbyist hired to secure federal money for an “alternate water source” in the coastal North County community.

VIABLE? :  The current location proposed for a desalination plant near the mouth of the Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria could run afoul of State Parks and other state agencies. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VIABLE? : The current location proposed for a desalination plant near the mouth of the Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria could run afoul of State Parks and other state agencies.

One word that was tip-toed around, however—at least by those on the CCSD payroll—was “desalination,” though it was clearly on the tip of everyone’s tongues.

The latest public board meeting followed the release of the district’s 2011-12 budget and was a show in renewed interest and optimism. It was also a place to debate geological testing that will determine if the location near Shamel Park and the state beach at Santa Rosa Creek is a viable one for the long-proposed desalination plant.

Currently, the joint CCSD-Army Corps of Engineers geotechnical testing is comprised of drilling test wells approximately 80 feet down near the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek to determine if underground pipes could collect enough seawater to supply a plant.

A new budget, adopted June 23, includes $40,000 for six months of service from Greg Burns, a Washington, D.C.-based “federal advocate” hired to facilitate relationships between the small-town district officials and legislators in the nation’s capitol who hold the purse strings for any potential desalination project.

Burns, a vice president of the Virginia-based federal government affairs firm Van Scoyoc Associates, was first hired by the CCSD in February 2009, the same month President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allotted $4.6 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, $200 million of which was allocated for “environmental infrastructure” projects. Cambria’s desalination project falls under that category.

“I was very surprised to hear Mr. Burns say you’re pursuing water alternatives when, in all reports, there are none mentioning any researching or any funding for recycling and storage,” resident Mary Webb told the board. “There have been no projects proposed other than desalination.”

Peter Chaldecott, former vice president of the board, who stepped down in November, said the community’s water problems are too severe to be addressed by water recycling.

The most recent CCSD Board election, in November 2010, was significant in part because two candidates ran on platforms that pointed to pursuing water options other than desal—such as gray-water systems and conservation. One candidate came close to taking a seat on the typically pro-desal board.

Burns was a key player in securing more than $2.5 million in ARRA funding for the desalination project. He’s previously worked with District Engineer Bob Gresens and former board president Greg Sanders, but the landscape of district staff and the board has changed since he last visited. Van Scoyoc flew Burns out for the July 28 meet, greet, and update at no charge.

The fiscal landscape has also changed since Burns last visited Cambria. On June 15, the House Appropriations Committee released the Army Corps of Engineers funding plan. The committee proposed roughly $4.7 billion for the Corps and a $133 million decrease in the Corps’ construction budget. That’s money that would be used to fund the desal project.

Burns told New Times, however, that $4.7 billion is “an extremely healthy allocation” for the Corps, historically, and he expects the Senate to propose even more funding.

In previous years, when a Corps project needed funding, local officials would go to their local legislator and seek a congressional earmark. Now that earmarks are a big no-no in Congress, spending decisions for corps projects have been placed solely at the discretion of the Corps itself.

Burns said increased communications between the CCSD and the Corps will make or break any substantial headway for the project in this new climate.

“It’s very important that elected officials hear from you directly and get to know the people from the community that this project will affect,” Burns told the board.

Courting legislators for funding is far from the only task ahead of the project. Burns reported that a “fair question” was whether pursuing a plant at the Santa Rosa Creek/Shamel Park location is already dead, given that California State Parks may not grant a permit for a site there. The proposal for the site—home to sensitive populations of plants and animals, including the endangered local steelhead trout—has already raised objections from environmentalists.

“I don’t know how to help you there,” said Burns, whose expertise is in behind-the-scenes relationships with legislators, not state agencies. He mentioned the possibility of pursuing talks with local Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps, who could encourage State Parks to be more “reasonable.”

Another foreseeable obstacle sits with the Coastal Commission, the state agency with the power to hold up any project within the coastal zone. In a 2010 letter to the district, the commission said the proposed site doesn’t seem adequate for the project and that the board should consider a different location or re-evaluate the project altogether.

Few argue that the district doesn’t need someone with federal connections to advocate on its behalf if the project is to see daylight, though many argue that Cambria doesn’t need a plant in the first place.

Critics contend that desalination is the “most expensive water money can buy” and should only be used as a last resort. Some publicly question the direness of Cambria’s water shortage and whether the push for a desal plant is really a push for increased development in the coastal community. ∆

 

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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