Court rules with Cambria CSD in water project lawsuit



The Cambria Community Services District won a key battle in the ongoing fight over its controversial water project.

After the district approved a $9 million loan and received an emergency permit to build a water facility to treat brackish water (a mix of fresh and salt water) in the oceanside community in 2014, the Cambria-based environmental group LandWatch filed a lawsuit challenging the permit and the emergency pretenses used for its approval. Stanford’s Environmental Law Clinic joined the lawsuit on behalf of LandWatch. 

On July 27, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett denied LandWatch’s challenge and sided with the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) and SLO County, which issued the permit.

LandWatch alleged that the CCSD—which already made several unsuccessful attempts over the last 20 years to build a desalination plant that were snagged in environmental review and permitting—took advantage of the ongoing drought to obtain an emergency permit that exempted the project from environmental review and compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In January 2014, the CCSD issued an emergency drought declaration after determining that the community had about four months of water left in its supply. The county issued an emergency permit for the project, and the facility switched on in January 2015. The CCSD later changed the project’s name to the Sustainable Water Facility, which only inflamed criticisms from residents who said the CCSD intends to use the emergency project for a permanent water supply.

Because Cambria’s water is drawn from limited creek wells, the 6,000-person community has long been under a county-issued building moratorium that limits new development until a new water source is obtained. That’s put tremendous pressure on the CCSD and the community, where hundreds of properties are on a waiting list to receive water connections and real estate developers are eager to break ground along the pristine coastline.

Garrett ruled the CCSD’s emergency exemption—which was supported by both the drought declaration and an emergency order issued by Gov. Jerry Brown—was legitimate.

“The administrative record contains substantial evidence to support the district’s conclusion that there was an imminent water supply shortage and emergency justification for the CEQA exemption,” the ruling said.

LandWatch also alleged the CCSD violated its emergency permit by not fully applying for a permanent permit from the county by a required deadline and that the county is in violation of the Coastal Act because it allowed the CCSD’s emergency permit to continue by extending the filing deadline for a permanent permit. 

The court determined LandWatch failed to meet the burden of proof that the district was in full violation, saying the application process was adequately underway. 

“The court cannot compel the county to exercise its enforcement discretion in a specific manner,” the ruling said. “The county has the discretion to decide how it deals with the district. … The same can be said for the Coastal Act.” 

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

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