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Cambria's advanced water treatment facility gets a new name, but the project's future use is still debated

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Within the Cambria community, there are two views of the intended use of the Community Services District's advanced water treatment facility: Either it's meant to support future growth, or it serves as insurance in the event of a drought.

The facility's current permit, which is temporary, says it can only run during a stage 3 water shortage emergency. But the district board is in the process of getting a permanent permit, and officials say they initiated another recent name-change discussion to bring the community together after years of debate surrounding the facility's name and function.

SAME DEBATE The Cambria community is still debating the intentions of the Community Services District's advanced water treatment facility. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SAME DEBATE The Cambria community is still debating the intentions of the Community Services District's advanced water treatment facility.

On March 11, the board approved renaming the 7-year-old Emergency Water Supply Project, aka the Sustainable Water Facility, to the Water Reclamation Facility—despite a majority of public commenters wanting its name to be changed back to the original name. District staff will give the board a report later in April with a timeline for implementing the name change.

During the meeting's public comment period, resident Crosby Swartz said the facility should be operated only when water shortage emergency conditions have been declared.

"For this reason, the facility's original name—Emergency Water Supply—is the most accurate way to identify the purpose of function," he said.

His wife, Laura Swartz, echoed her husband's comments and added that when former board President Gail Robinette urged ratepayers to support the Emergency Water Supply Project, Robinette referred to it as an insurance policy.

"Insurance policies are purchased for emergencies, hence the name. Don't use our insurance policy for everyday use," she said.

In a 2016 interview, Robinette told New Times that when the district received the emergency coastal development permit for the Emergency Water Supply Project from SLO County, the first paragraphs of the permit stated that after six months the district needed to seek a permanent permit.

The district has been working on getting that permit to this day.

The requirement to get an emergency permit—which would eventually need to become permanent—caused a rift between the community and the district board, General Manager John Weigold said.

"There's controversy around how that was done. There are people from one of the active groups in town that argue it was done in a back room and not in the public, it was named the Sustainable Water Facility without being debated," Weigold said. "So all of that contributed to an issue of trust within the community, that still exists today."

The recent topic of again renaming the facility, he said, was part of an effort to regain trust, establish continued transparency, and bring the community together.

District board President Cindy Steidel said during the March 11 meeting that from her personal perspective, any name the board considers should be neutral in nature—something that would represent its functional performance and that all members of the community can embrace.

During the meeting, district board members repeatedly stated that the planned discussion was not about the facility's project description; however, the conversation consistently reverted back to that.

"The bigger issue though, is what are we going to use this thing for," Weigold said.

Weigold joined the district in 2019 and said the board asked him to seek a permanent permit for the facility, which would enable the district to operate "as we see fit."

"Now 'as we see fit' depends on the parameters that the board will ultimately give me," he said.

Part of the application for a permanent permit calls for an environmental impact report (EIR); so instead of paying for an entirely new one, Weigold said some information was carried over from the original project's EIR. That project description assumed that a certain number of additional homes could be supported by the treatment plant over a period of time.

"The no-growth group points to that as the 'aha!' They view that as more evidence that somebody is going to try to build more homes here," Weigold said. "I can tell you from my perspective, let's get the permit to operate it within our control, and then we'll come up with some rules of when we should operate it."

The Water Reclamation Facility has two goals, Weigold said. The first is to provide water in a drought situation or anytime the water table gets low.

He added that the second goal is one that people miss: to provide a barrier underground to prevent saltwater intrusion into the community's aquifer.

"Imagine if saltwater intruded into the main place where we get 80 percent of our water: They would render those underwater wells unusable. And then we have a huge problem," Weigold said.

Rather than allowing that problem to develop, Weigold said he views the facility as an insurance policy to preserve the water supply the community depends on.

But that insurance policy has come at a significant price and has hit several bumps in the road since its establishment.

According to Weigold's recent manager's report, the construction cost of the Water Reclamation Facility is $12.7 million. Of that total, $4.4 million was covered in grant funding and $8.9 million in loan funding.

Each year, the district budgets about $1.2 million to run the plant, according to the report—including ongoing maintenance and operations, repayment of the loan, and reserves for two months of operation.

The district's been paying back the loan since February 2015. According to the report, nearly $2.2 million has been paid in principal and $2.1 million in interest. The remaining balance on the facility's loan is $6.7 million with a final payoff date of August 2034.

Over the years, community members have raised concerns about the construction and operations costs and the issue of the facility's faulty brine pond.

The district contracted CDM Smith, a Boston-based construction and engineering firm, to build the water facility. The firm proposed making an evaporation pond to store and dispose of brine and related material generated from the water treatment plant.

But a heavy rainstorm in 2017 caused surface water to flood into the pond, and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cease and desist order against its use.

A year later, the Cambria Community Services District filed a lawsuit against CDM Smith for damages and bad equipment due to faulty work. That lawsuit was settled on Jan. 21, 2021, for nearly $1.8 million, which the district set aside in a savings reserve.

The faulty brine pond was decommissioned, and Weigold said the district has no plans to take it apart because that could cost upwards of a million dollars. If and when the plant is operated, he said, the brine waste would just be disposed of somewhere else—at an additional cost.

Despite the setback, the district applied for a permanent coastal development permit for the treatment facility in 2020. It's currently conducting supplemental tests and studies requested by SLO County and the California Coastal Commission, and Weigold said he anticipates that they'll finish their part of the permit process by the end of 2021.

He said he believes the district will probably have a permanent permit by next spring.

"That's not the end of the story. We've already been told by some residents that they plan to appeal regardless of what happens," Weigold said. "And who knows how long that will take." Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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