- PHOTO COURTESY OF MNS Engineers
The current construction site for the Nipomo Supplemental Water Project makes anyone who walks its grounds thirsty.
Perched atop the bluffs overlooking the Santa Maria River Levee, the bustling spot looks like a beach without its ocean. Every piece of equipment—from a simple hand wrench to the elephantine drilling rig—is covered in a layer of fine, beige dust.
This arid scene makes it difficult to believe that the men and women working here are helping to build a pipeline that, once completed, would pump 3,000 acre-feet of life-giving water per year from Santa Maria to Nipomo.
When New Times visited the site in mid-October, the drilling crew was in the process of reaming a soon-to-be-46-inch-diameter hole—an underground tunnel of sorts—from the top of the mesa to the middle of the river.
“The horizontal directional drilling is the most complex part of the project,” Nipomo Community Services District (NCSD) General Manager Michael LeBrun told New Times in an interview prior to the site visit.
The first phase of the $17.5 million project includes three separate bid packages. Southern California-based ARB Inc. is in charge of the horizontal directional drilling under the river. Earlier this year, the construction crew dug a pilot hole and then spent more than six weeks prepping it to receive a 2,700-foot steel-cased pipeline. Using the largest drill bits this reporter has ever seen, crew members ground away at the pilot hole to expand its diameter from 26 inches to 36 inches, and then, finally, to 46 inches.
“[Horizontal Directional Drilling] is much the same principle as exploratory drilling rigs, but we’re not exploring anything. We’re just trying to avoid obstacles, and in this case, the obstacle is the Santa Maria river,” ARB Inc.’s drilling division manager Jody Parrish explained. “We don’t want to disturb the river or the dunes.”
The river wasn’t the only obstacle ARB Inc. faced. It also had to deal with a combination of contrasting geological formations, including sand blown in from the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes and a very hard form of clay found in the upper Paso Robles Formation. (Not to be confused with the Northern San Luis Obispo County city of Paso Robles currently tackling its own water shortage issues). Because of the sand, the hole caved in several times during the drilling process. The crew went through at least one $40,000 drill bit due to a metallurgical issue. And the appearance of the California red-legged frog forced a drilling shutdown, as well as construction of a sealed frog barrier around the site.
“They’ve definitely been put to the test,” Construction Manager Kim Lindberry said of the ARB Inc. crew. “But everything paid off because change orders have been very, very low.”
Once the hole was the right size and stable enough to stand on its own, crewmembers used a crane and two powerful drill rigs to pull the pipeline into place. All of this was done on a tight deadline, General Manager LeBrun said, because NCSD’s permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife only gave crews riverbed access from April 15 to Oct. 31.
Two Central Coast contractors will carry out the next steps in the building process. San Luis Obispo-based Specialty Construction Inc. is laying down a mile-long pipeline along Blosser Road to connect Nipomo to the Santa Maria water treatment plant, and Spiess Construction Inc., of Santa Maria, is laying down a half-mile pipeline on the mesa leading to the Nipomo water treatment plant. The Spiess crew will also build a pump station at the top of the bluff overlooking the river and four pump heads, which assist in the disinfection process.
Nipomo will buy a combination of state and groundwater from Santa Maria at a tier 1-rate, just like any other paying customer.
“Once completed, this pipeline will pump 1 billion gallons of water a year,” LeBrun said at a media event at the Santa Maria River Levee on Oct. 23. “It will be a lifeline to the Nipomo Mesa.”
A little history
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
As with many Southern California communities, water has always been a hot-button issue on the Nipomo Mesa. A lot has changed since 1965, when the NCSD took over a handful of wells from Savage Water Company.
“We still have some of their infrastructure today,” LeBrun said.
According to the district website, ncsd.ca.gov, four confirmed cases of typhoid fever in the 1960s led the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department to conduct a detailed test of the community’s water that found high concentrations of nitrates and chlorides, as well as bacteria. That test and an additional report from county hydraulic engineer Bob Born sparked the formation of a special district to oversee the community’s water supply and sewage treatment system.
NCSD, of course, isn’t the only water purveyor on the mesa. Others include Golden State Water Company, Rural Water Company, and Woodlands Mutual Water Company, as well as dozens of smaller, private wells, many of which enjoyed senior rights to the water supply. But back in those days, there was plenty of water to go around—or, at least, that’s how it seemed.
“Thirty years ago, Nipomo was just eucalyptus trees. It was a no-man’s land, and people thought you had to be crazy to live on the mesa. I’m serious. The old timers will tell you that, too,” LeBrun told New Times.
Since then, urban and agricultural development has grown exponentially, causing the sleepy, rural community’s population to explode. (The most recent U.S. Census data available tracked it at 16,000 people.) To keep up with demand, purveyors have continued to pump more and more water out of the basin aquifer—Nipomo’s only source of fresh water.
To better understand the genesis of the Nipomo Supplemental Water Project, one must travel back in time to the early 1990s when a much-smaller mesa community grappled with the decision of whether to tap into the coastal branch of the California State Water Project, a 100-mile pipeline designed to pump supplemental water to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, a historically drought-vulnerable area. Concerns over costs and the impact it would have on population size ultimately caused locals to opt out of the project. The pipeline continued on its way to Santa Maria without hooking up to plants in Nipomo.
Several years later, in 1997, a lawsuit commonly referred to as the Santa Maria Groundwater Litigation questioned who in fact had senior rights to pump water on the mesa. The legal process also raised concerns over the health of the Nipomo/Santa Maria groundwater basin, and called for the creation of a court-approved plan to manage the area’s most precious resource.
“Water is the most important utility we have. We can go without gas or heat for cooking. It wouldn’t be fun, but we could do it. Without water, we die,” LeBrun said.
Studies conducted by the Santa Barbara County Water Agency and the California Department of Water Resources revealed that there’s a long-term decline in the amount of stored water above sea level in the Nipomo area of the basin due to over pumping. This is called a pumping depression.
“It’s all Upper Paso Robles formation, which is very permeable with lots of interstitial space that the water fills,” LeBrun said of the basin. “People envision caverns of water below—not so. And once the water leaves the formation, some of those spaces are lost.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- THAT’S A BIG PIPE: The steel-cased pipeline was welded and pressure tested prior to being dragged through the hole under the riverbed.
A 2005 settlement in that case requires the NCSD to provide the Nipomo area with a minimum of 2,500 acre-feet of supplemental water per year. District officials, engineers, and a group of citizen volunteers called the Supplemental Water Alternatives Evaluation Committee looked into several other ways to bring the precious liquid to Nipomo, including a seawater desalination plant, buying into the State Water Project directly, recharging the basin with treated wastewater, and drawing agricultural runoff from Oso Flaco Lake.
According to reports from the district, the NCSD Board of Directors rejected these water sources for a number of reasons. The desal plant idea, for example, was deemed too expensive and too time intensive. Hooking up to the State Water Project was considered too expensive because of the buy-rate for water. Wastewater treatment didn’t produce enough water, and the water from Oso Flaco Lake was considered too low-quality.
So in 2009, the district’s board of directors approved plans for the inter-tie water pipeline. The next step in the plan was to get it funded.
A pipe(line) dream come true
Fast-forward to 2012. The district held a special election asking Nipomo residents to approve a property tax increase to pay for the then-$26 million pipeline. That measure ultimately failed, forcing the district to go back to the drawing board.
“When that happened, I thought we were done,” LeBrun said of the vote. “It would have been much cheaper to finance [the project in 2012]. The markets then where much better, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
But rather than accepting defeat, the district, led by finance director and assistant general manager Lisa Bognuda, pieced together a cheaper plan that used borrowing power and money from the general fund.
The decision to use money from the general fund had some community members up in arms. A nonprofit group called the Mesa Community Alliance filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging, among other things, that it violated state laws barring community services districts use money from a reserve fund created for a specific purpose to pay for another project. In this case, $4 million for the pipeline project would have come from money set aside for infrastructure upgrades.
The NCSD challenged the suit, saying many of the alliance’s claims were factually lacking and that it was well within its rights to use money from the general fund because the pipeline would reduce the district’s need to repair and refurbish its wells. A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge allowed the district to move forward with the project under a slightly altered plan that calls for the borrowing of an additional $4 million. The project is being paid for mostly with bonds, along with some general fund money, and a $2.2 million grant from the state.
Bill Petrick, a member of the Mesa Community Alliance, said his group’s main purpose was to “get the correct information [about the project] out to the public.”
“We felt the district was only telling one side. They’re trying to make it sound like we’re going to run out of water and that there’s going to be seawater intrusion in the basin—all of these extreme ideas to sell the project,” Petrick said.
He said the district hasn’t provided enough information to show that the pipeline is a valuable investment for the community.
“A bunch of lawyers got together and decided that [the supplemental water project] would be the best idea,” he said. “But it’s not really supplemental water because it’s already in the basin. It’s going to flow here naturally.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- MIND THE GAP: The contractors put a 54-inch steal casing at the mouth of the hole to stabilize it. Sand from the Oceano-Nipomo Dunes caused the tunnel to cave in at least once, but the hard clay and stone of the upper Paso Robles Formation made sure it stood strong.
He admitted that there’s been over pumping on the mesa for decades, but said that can be fixed by spreading the pumping out over the basin rather than concentrating it in one area.
Petrick’s long-term solution for the area’s water woes is construction of a desalination plant.
“If the NCSD gets everyone to pay for the pipeline and then it doesn’t work out or it doesn’t change anything … they won’t have any money to pay for the right solution,” he said. “You only get one bite of the apple, and they’re going to sour taxpayers on the pipeline.”
General Manager LeBrun told New Times that much of the district’s pumping occurs in its western quadrant because the Oceano Fault Trace makes it difficult to get water out of more eastern locations.
“People say, ‘Well, [the basin’s] the same bathtub, so why is it a problem?’” LeBrun said. “If it was just a bathtub of water, it wouldn’t be a problem. The formations make each area different.”
He said that up until recently, water has been “incredibly cheap,” but an ongoing drought, increasing populations, and people’s attitudes about water are changing all of that.
“Americans think they should have safe, potable drinking water coming out of their faucets 24/7, 365. It’s [viewed as] a birthright,” LeBrun said. “And more than half of it is dumped on the ground.”
The district is expected to hold public workshops and meetings to discuss potential water rate increases next year—something Mesa Community Alliance’s Petrick claims officials said they wouldn’t do.
He said his group has been pushing the county to play a bigger part in Nipomo’s water wars, like the county has in Paso Robles.
“The NCSD shouldn’t be in charge of Nipomo’s water issues. That’s a county issue,” he said.
Nonetheless, LeBrun said he’s incredibly proud of what district employees have been able to accomplish.
“We have 15 staff members, three of which are in administration and 12 of which are field operatives. We process 2,500 bills a month. We have two waste-water treatment plants, 13 sewage list stations, and eight wells—and we’re spread out on seven miles,” he said. “Our district is getting amazing things done. … We’re a growing community with a future.”
Amy Asman is managing editor for The Santa Maria Sun, New Times’ sister publication. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.