- PHOTO BY COLIN RIGLEY
- GOING, GOING ...: Municipalities are struggling to pull out as much water as they can out of San Luis Reservoir, one of the most critical supplies of state water to the Central Coast, fearing they’ll lose access.
If Morro Bay city officials could pull out their stash of state water and store it in an elaborate network of pots and buckets, they probably would at this point.
With state water supplies both drying out and under threat of being cut off, many municipalities are sucking out as much as they can, as quickly as they can, so they can store their precious reserve supply locally where it can be more easily protected.
But Morro Bay’s 10,000 residents are left in the undesirable situation of having to rely almost exclusively on a limited reserve of state water and having no means of storing it locally.
Other municipalities to the south, for example, have begun feverishly pulling out their reserves, or “carryover.” The Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA) has maxed out its pumping capabilities in order to pull water out of the San Luis Reservoir and store it in Lake Cachuma. According to CCWA Executive Director Ray Stokes, those pumps are drawing out 50 acre-feet per day, which is the most that can be physically pumped.
“The idea is that we want to get as much of that carryover delivered and into Lake Cachuma as quickly as possible,” Stokes said in an email. “We intend to keep pumping as much as possible until all the carryover has been delivered to Lake Cachuma for the south coast.”
Stokes said he believes Santa Barbara County’s entire supply of carryover will be safely in local reservoirs by June.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed Morro Bay had a relatively safe supply of carryover water in the San Luis Reservoir—enough to take the city through two to three years of drought. But even that carryover supply, which Morro Bay had set aside for just such a drought situation, is tenuous at best.
The worry isn’t so much that other agencies will suck the reservoir dry, but that, at a certain point, the state will cease to pump carryover water if Morro Bay is the only city requesting it.
“With the amount of water that can be delivered through this big infrastructure, they’re not going to turn on their pumps and run their treatment plant for the little amount of water Morro Bay needs,” said Rob Livick, Morro Bay public services director and city engineer.
The Central Coast is perhaps one of the worst-hit areas of California’s ongoing drought. Last year, locals recorded just 4.9 inches of rainfall, which was the third lowest level in the state behind the San Joaquin Valley and Sonora Desert, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Water levels in the San Luis Reservoir, which is effectively the only remaining source of state water south of the Delta, is at 30 percent of its 2 million acre-foot capacity.
Under such conditions, state officials are growing ever more stingy with the limited amount of water that’s available. Tim Moran, a public information officer with the State Water Resources Control Board, said the agency is in the process of deciding how to distribute its dwindling supplies of carryover water; regular allocations of state water became nonexistent after the California Department of Water Resources reduced allocations to zero percent on Jan. 31.
“The state water board is going through a process of analyzing each watershed to figure out whether we need to send curtailment letters, which would tell junior rights holders, ‘You can’t pull,’” Moran said.
The results of that analysis were about to be released, but were put on hold and sent back for further evaluation following the brief smattering of rain earlier this month.
Local officials are negotiating with the state in hopes of protecting the 7,332 acre-feet of carryover water held in the San Luis Reservoir for SLO County recipients. Morro Bay’s share accounts for almost half (about 3,072 acre-feet) of that supply, and the city depends on state water to provide more than 90 percent of its water.
“Whatever carryover water we deliver this year, we want to get it out of the state system and get it into the Central Coast,” said SLO County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren.
The problem for Morro Bay is it has nowhere to store that water—or at least no access to any of the local reservoirs. SLO County can hold its carryover in Lopez Lake, but Morro Bay currently has no way of accessing that water.
At present, the plan to get Morro Bay its water is through a complex system of trades. According to Livick, one option would be to store Morro Bay’s carryover in Lopez Lake in exchange for water supplied by the California Men’s Colony, which has access to Lopez. CMC, in exchange, would backfill its losses with water from the Nacimiento Water Project. However, that would require CMC to build out additional infrastructure in order to patch into the Nacimiento lines. Those discussions are ongoing and far from ironed out.
Without access to its state water carryover, Morro Bay would most likely have to run its desalination plant, which comes with its own set of problems. The coastal development permit for the city’s salt water wells and outfall system has long since expired. City officials are working with the California Coastal Commission to get the plant permitted once again and believe they will have the permit in hand in the next few months.
City officials reached an agreement with the Coastal Commission to put out a notification any time the desalination plant will be running and that Morro Bay is in violation, Livick said.
Compounding matters is the fact that desalination water is expensive: about $1,600 per acre-foot. Even if the supply of state water is completely cut off, Morro Bay will still have to pay its debt service on the state water project, which is about $1,500 per acre foot—roughly $2 million per year.
In such a worst-case scenario, the city would essentially double its costs for the same amount of water. Livick said any increase to ratepayers would have to go out to a vote, but the city does have some funds set aside that could cover its costs.
Fortunately, residents have complied with recently adopted conservation measures and lessened their water usage from about 740 gallons per minute to just 600 gallons per minute. Still, asked about the situation, Livick said, “I hesitate to say everything is rosy, because it’s not.”
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.