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Saving a drying out resource: Conserving water is nothing new for San Simeon

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On Highway 1 right in between Big Sur and San Luis Obispo lies San Simeon, a community that prides itself on its water conservation efforts that date back to the 1980s. Most recently, the San Simeon Community Services District (SSCSD) approved a newly updated water conservation ordinance on Dec. 14 in order to align local water regulations with the state mandated rules, that Gov. Jerry Brown ordered in 2015. 

Although San Simeon isn’t the only district looking into its water usage amid the drought, community members aren’t necessarily feeling the impact of the lack of water as conserving has just become the norm. What the community really struggles with is salt water overriding its potable water source.

The updated ordinance includes a ban on outdoor irrigation and restaurants not serving water to customers without a request, to name a few.

The ordinance also defines what the community would do in the event that the district were to declare a local stage 1, 2, or 3 water shortage. But that isn’t something that the district is worried about SSCSD General Manager Charles Grace said, as San Simeon has always been in water conservation mode since the ’80s. 

The conservation efforts by the community were what SSCSD administrator Renee Osborne calls self-motivated. The main source of water for the district comes from the Pico Creek aquifer that butts right up to the ocean. During the ’80s California was severely lacking rainfall and the district noticed that its wells were stagnant—there wasn’t any rain to refill the well. 

“When they saw that their wells were running out, that’s when they decided to start their own conservation measures and the community really worked with the district to save their water,” Osborne said. 

The measures were put into place and the only time that they were lifted was when salt water overwhelmingly filled the wells.  

Although the community had consciously banded together to use less water, its constant battle was the seasonal high tide that would overflow the aquifer with salt water. 

“The ocean had provided us with wells full of water but not drinkable,” Osborne said. 

When this happened she said the district temporarily lifted the water conservation measures on the community in order to release as much salt water as possible so the creek water could naturally blend out the salt with fresh water. 

“It wasn’t just a, ‘Hey everyone let’s just start wasting water,’” Osborne said.

She said this was a chance for the community to use the water for outdoor irrigation or to wash down the sidewalks, but once the salt water was mostly out of the aquifer the conservation measures were reinstated.

The district found a solution in May 2016 when it established the Wellhead Treatment Plant, a facility that puts water through a reverse osmosis process creating potable water. Grace said the plant is used entirely on a situational basis when there is salt-water intrusion in the water; the plant is then turned on for a short period of time. When there is rainfall or the salt water is blended out of the aquifers the plant is shut off, letting nature runs its course in providing the district with water once again. 

While San Simeon has a population of approximately 462 people, Osborne said a smaller community has nothing to do with their successful conservation efforts.

Another entity in the community that has been adding to the conservation efforts is the hotel industry in the district. Many guests of San Simeon’s 11 hotels are greeted with a sign that reads towels and linens will not be washed daily unless otherwise asked for by the guest. This is a measure highlighted in the district’s conservation efforts, but Osborne said it’s something the hotels have been doing on their own for years. The hotels also use recycled water for commercial irrigation, which costs extra as its trucked down to them from the wastewater treatment plant.

“That was one of the biggest hurdles for our commercial entities but they’ve done their part,” Osborne said. “The community is very resilient, and these guys don’t cry when they have to go into conservation mode.”  

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

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