How dry we're not

SLO city residents will pay for water enough to supply 32,000 more people.



BIG WATER :  Water supply will far outpace demand for the forseeable future. - ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF CANNON
  • BIG WATER : Water supply will far outpace demand for the forseeable future.
Like Los Angeles in the classic movie Chinatown, there will soon be far more water piped into the City of San Luis Obispo at ratepayer expense than residents and businesses could ever need, even if builders were to expand the city to the limit of the city charter. Though city officials say the glut will provide a safe reserve in case one of the other two water sources fail, there’s speculation the overage could spur development far beyond the maximum extent in the current charter.

Scheduled for completion late this summer, the 45-mile-long Nacimiento pipeline will bring a major new supply of water to Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, SLO, and Cayucos. Based on 2008 statistics for SLO city water consumption, the project will provide 4,705 acre feet of water in excess of what residents actually use, enough for 77,379 people: 32,629 more people than the estimated 2009 population and 21,379 more than the city charter’s maximum build-out estimate of 56,000.

Crunch the numbers a different way—the city’s way—and the amount is still excessive. The city measures water usage by allotting more water per resident (145 gallons a day) than they actually use (128 gallons a day, according to 2008 estimates). The city figures indicate the spare water would be enough for 67,284 people: 11,283 more than the maximum population of the city afforded by the city charter and 22,763 more people than reside there now.

The city has been raising water bills to pay for the project: Rates have nearly doubled since 2004. The city council voted unanimously to increase rates 12 percent last year and 11 percent this year. Even if there were a jump in demand, there’ll be far more water than current residents could ever consume. A chart in the 2009 water resources report shows the city will have about 2,000 acre feet of water to spare in 2031, based on a projected demand that far exceeds likely actual need.

Some city residents suspect the extra water will induce development beyond the city’s current maximum build-out. City leaders scoff at that idea, pointing to restrictions in the city’s charter. In fact, Measure P, passed by the voters in 1996, added a requirement to the city charter to create a water reserve that could never be used for development. The city council, however, never set aside any water, deciding in 2004 a literal reserve was unnecessary and too expensive; instead the utilities department decided to tweak the water formulas by planning for higher levels of usage than actually occur, to create a virtual reserve.

Brett Cross, a former city planning commissioner and slow-growth advocate, said water is the one thing vital for future development surpassing what the city charter stipulates. “Politicians can always change slow-growth policies,” Cross said. “The one concrete thing that can restrict development is water or the lack of it.”

It’s not only Cross who says the project is likely to spur future development. The Environmental Impact Report for the Nacimiento project says so, too: “Obtaining Nacimiento Water Project supply will enable additional development in San Luis Obispo. There is the potential for water availability, particularly a large amount in excess of identified needs, to prompt amendments to the General Plan, thereby allowing more development or faster development than currently allowed … The city has a history of considering potential changes to its plan and growth regulations, approving some and rejecting others.”

City staff also stated the extra water could spur growth. From a 2004 city document: “One advantage of the Nacimiento project may provide over other supply project options is that it may be possible to participate at a level that is appropriate for today, with the opportunity for future Councils to expand our participation if dictated by the demands of the General plan at that time, assuming unallocated reserves remain available.”

Some city staff members don’t see the project that way. The city needs all that water, Gary Henderson, manager of the water division, claimed. Henderson said the drought of 1986-1991 had a profound influence. “We were thinking about cloud seeding,” said Henderson. “And a desalinization plant which would have been very expensive. It was bad and we were almost out of water.”

A chance for a city to corner a lot of water is rare in California, Henderson continued. Nacimiento is one of the last big water sources in this area and Henderson said the city was wise to take water while it could. The 3,080 acre feet of water is required to supply enough water for the full build-out and was the suggested amount from the project’s Environmental Impact Report, he said.

“If we lose one of our other supply sources we can really be in trouble,” Henderson maintained. “A secondary water supply is something really good to have.” San Luis Obispo Mayor Dave Romero agrees. “You get water when you can get it,” said Romero.
“If one of the other reservoirs goes down then you have another to go to.”

Romero said he thinks the water will be a gift for future generations who might want to expand the city. “If we restrict the water supply to the build-out (numbers) then we are saying this is as big as the city will ever be,” said Romero. “We need to see things beyond build-out. Future councils may want to move the city in a different direction. We need to have a water supply for the future, for the city of my grandchildren.”

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at


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