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SLO Supervisors bet on Diablo desal project

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South SLO County is drying up. 

Punished by the state’s historic drought, recent rains have brought little relief to Five Cities-area municipalities like Grover Beach, Oceano, Arroyo Grande, and Pismo Beach. A recent analysis by the county predicted that South County water sources—including Lopez Lake—could dry up as soon as 2018.

“We are in a very fragile situation with just two years of water left in South County,” said SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill. “We need to do everything.”

Ideas about how to best address the water crisis have been floating around the county, and at a March 22 meeting, Hill and the other four supervisors backed an ambitious and expensive solution: desalinated water from the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The plant, run by PG&E, has a desalination operation that pulls water from the ocean and removes the salt for use in the plant’s operations and as drinking water for employees. Diablo Canyon is licensed to produce 1.5 million gallons of desalinated water each day, but PG&E officials have said the plant only produces about 40 percent of that.

Using that extra water to fight the drought in South County is an attractive prospect, and the board unanimously voted at the March 22 meeting to order county staff to do the preliminary work needed to get the project moving and to allocate $900,000 for initial efforts.

That won’t be the only money needed to make South County’s desalination dreams a reality. While Diablo Canyon already has the technology, the project will require 7 miles of new pipeline to bring water from the plant to the Lopez Lake Pipeline system and retrofitting an additional 7 miles of pipeline, according to county staff. The total cost of the project could range from $21.7 million to $36.3 million.

“I think that this is money well spent if we can get to the final product,” 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham said. 

The cost to build and maintain that pipeline would be shouldered by those who end up using the water. Staff said it was too early in the process to estimate just how much how much those rates would increase should the project become a reality. Resident Jeff Edwards spoke at the March 22 meeting and was one of two residents who said the project was “insanity.” Edwards questioned the high cost of the project relative to the amount of water (anywhere from 500 to 1,300 acre feet annually) it would provide.

“In short, it’s too little water for too much money,” he said. 

Others who spoke against the project worried that it would overshadow or hinder other drought mitigation projects.

When it comes to such projects, Pismo Beach has been leading the charge with its “regional ground water sustainability” project. In that project, Pismo hopes to join with neighboring cities to update its sewage treatment plant to a full-fledged water recycling facility. That treated, recycled water would then be injected back into the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin. Pismo’s City Council voted in October 2015 to begin preparing environmental documents and studies for the water-recycling project.

Despite fears that the Diablo desalination project—which would require cooperation and possibly funds from the same cities as Pismo’s project would—might hamper other projects, the supervisors insisted that both could move forward.

“No one project will solve the problem, and no one project will knock off another project,” said Hill, whose district includes a large swath of South County and who is currently running for re-election.

Fifth District Supervisor Debbie Arnold agreed. 

“To me, this isn’t an ‘either/or,’ it’s an ‘and,’” she said.

Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said the specific impacts of the desalination project on his city’s water reclamation project were unknown and indicated that the supervisors’ recent vote would likely be a step toward answering those questions. 

“I think what the supervisors are trying to do is spend a good chunk of money to answer those questions,” he said. “We are interested in those answers.”

The Diablo Canyon desalination project isn’t without its supporters outside the Board of Supervisors. Both SLO County Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business founder Mike Brown and Jeff Eckles, executive director for the Home Builder’s Association of the Central Coast, spoke in favor of the project at the March 22 meeting.

And even though some detractors balked at the cost and other impacts of the project, 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton noted the cost would only increase over time, and that waiting until the water problem was critical could end up drawing even more ire from thirsty South County residents.

“I guarantee you we are all going to be criticized when people run out of water down there,” she said.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness. 

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