Though the groundwater situation in Cambria may have prompted two special meetings in less than two weeks (that dragged on for over eight cumulative hours), the situation is pretty simple at its core.
What remains—beyond all that sound and fury—is a classic supply and demand problem. In contemporary Cambria, the water supply is low, and demand is high. So, do you raise the supply or lower the demand? Or do both? Or raise both? Or, perhaps, pray for rain?
Residents, Cambria CSD staff, and board members can’t seem to agree on where the supply and demand levels should be set, and the myriad offspring conflicts sprouting from this root disagreement have only worsened the situation.
For Cambria CSD general manager Jerry Gruber and the five people on the Board of Directors, sorting through the water situation has been a challenging exercise in dealing with external and internal conflicts.
During public comment at the water issue special meetings, on Sept. 9 and 20, Gruber and the board members were accused of: lying to the public, acting irresponsibly and ineffectively, ignoring conflicts of interest, and some residents even publicly called for their recall or resignation.
At the first meeting, Gruber encouraged attendees to “chill out on the theatrics,” and he echoed that sentiment on Sept. 20, suggesting, “everybody take a deep breath and realize it’s not as bad as we thought.” His comments were met with widespread boos and derision both times.
Cambria’s three San Simeon Creek wells—the town’s primary water supply—have always fluctuated with rainfall over the years. This year, however, the water level in the wells hit an average depth of just 2.84 feet on Sept. 16, the lowest reading at that time of year since 1988. A key auxiliary well, the “SR4” off of Santa Rosa Creek, has been an unreliable water source this year, compounding the problem.
The board—along with many vocal, concerned Cambrians—is searching for the right magic formula of water conservation measures, excess consumption penalties, and long-term water supply projects to stabilize Cambria’s wildly fluctuating water supply.
“I am very passionate about water conservation and water supply management,” said Amanda C. Rice, a Cambria CSD director.
Rice argued that Cambria’s water situation is essentially a resource management issue. She emphasized the importance of proper conservation by full-time residents, tourists, and part-time residents alike.
“I really believe that the best thing for Cambria, financially and environmentally, is to conserve and manage the water we have,” Rice told New Times.
Though Rice’s fellow board members largely share her conservation conviction, she parts ways with some of them because she opposes desalination—a highly divisive method of obtaining further potable water.
Board Vice President Jim Bahringer has been one of the more vocal advocates for “desal,” urging Cambria CSD staff to investigate the possibility of acquiring a modular unit during both meetings.
“We’ve been playing a shell game with our aquifers for the last 10 years,” Bahringer said during the Sept. 20 meeting. “Desal is the one thing we can do that’s not a game or a trick that will help this community.”
Rice, however, said that desal would be prohibitively expensive for Cambria, and argued that such measures give Cambrians a dangerous false impression of unlimited resources.
“Some people don’t want to live within their means, but that’s just not our reality,” Rice said.
True to their bifurcated form, the board voted to enact comparatively toothless conservation regulations on Sept. 20, the vast majority of which were already in place. Two new regulations voted into action prohibit the use of potable water for irrigation and give hotel guests the option to have their linens and towels laundered less frequently. The board decided against adding surcharges on water bills.
Though it is surely an overgeneralization, the rest of the community seems to be either highly vocal critics of the CSD and board or absentee homeowners who can’t be bothered to conserve or attend meetings.
Karen Dean, Tina Dickason, and Mahala Burton—all Cambria homeowners—are three of the most vociferous activists.
“I don’t think we’re going to conserve our way out of this problem,” Dean said. “We can’t let Cambria run out of water.”
This small group of activists has coalesced around a few key points: they oppose any further water hookups in Cambria with “intent to serve” letters, they care about conservation, and they share a distrust of the CSD’s plan to retrofit water fixtures and offset new water usage in planned developments.
“I think retrofitting and offsets are stupid, bogus, and a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Burton said. “How are the offsets ever going to be verified? It’s just a means to get new buildings.”
While Rice admitted there are some flaws in the retrofitting and offset program, she insisted that the CSD is serious about issuing intent to serve letters soon, and committed to enforcing the mandated 1.7:1 offset ratio of the ordinance.
“In order to prove that intent to serve letters will decrease the demand on our aquifers, we have to actually issue some letters first,” Rice said. “I wish more people would understand the good behind the letters.”
On the other hand, the activist crowd sees flimsy conservation measures as a poor excuse for reckless expansion of Cambria’s footprint.
“It feels like [the CSD] is treating Cambria like a sponge and wringing it out to eke out the last few drops,” Dean said. “Sooner or later, people will tire of the CSD giving out more water when folks are simultaneously trying to conserve.”
Activists like Burton and Dickason have also pointed to conflicts of interest on the board—for example, that Director Gail Robinette owns property on Cambria’s “water waitlist”—as resignation-worthy offenses. Unsurprisingly, board members disagree.
“I think we need to stop this undercurrent of mistrust and bitterness,” Robinette said at the Sept. 9 meeting.
After the Sept. 20 meeting, Gruber said that—in addition to mandating short-term maximization of Cambria’s wells—board members had directed his staff to look into two long-term plans: acquiring a modular desalination unit and more efficient relocation and usage of treated wastewater.
Both ideas have their champions on the board, but both are at an indeterminate, nascent stage in their development.
CSD staff estimated that there are 99 acre-feet of water left in the San Simeon aquifer, and whether or not that will be sufficient depends heavily on the eagerly-awaited arrival of the fall rains, as well as the usability of the supplemental “SR4” well.
One commenter on Sept. 20 even invoked the Book of Job and suggested praying for rain. She was not ridiculed in the slightest.
Rice said she is hoping that better all-around communication—within the board, between CSD staff and the board, and between the CSD and the community—will improve conservation efforts. Rice also specifically said activists definitely deserve more credit for their conservation efforts.
The activists are naturally suspicious of CSD actions, but still hope for an outcome that benefits all Cambrians.
“It’s not fair for Cambrians to go through this constant up and down cycle,” Dean said. “I think we’re a little too close to rock bottom.”
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.