Water shortage: Dried up and pissed off in Cambria



San Luis Obispo County’s most contentious issue—water—reared its ugly head yet again, this time in Cambria, as irate residents, flustered community services district staffers, and an irresolute CSD board of directors squabbled over water supply concerns.

Cambria declared a resource emergency in 2001 and, ever since, has flitted between acceptable and dangerous levels in its various wells. The district’s three San Simeon Creek wells have dropped to their lowest level in the past decade, exacerbated by the recent drought and fluctuating community usage levels, according to a staff report.

A Sept. 9 special meeting of the CCSD directors—called in order to receive and react to the report—lasted more than two hours and attracted more than 50 people to the Cambria Veterans Hall.

At issue: calibrating the magic formula of water conservation, excess consumption surcharges, and long-term projects to secure and stabilize the coastal village’s strained aquatic resources. The unpopular surcharges were last implemented in 2007, and Cambrians have participated in conservation measures since 2001.

Because of the low San Simeon well readings and an inability to draw from a usually relied-upon Santa Rosa Creek well, Cambria finds itself with about 101 acre-feet of water left in the San Simeon aquifer, and roughly 120 acre-feet of expected demand before the rainy season, according to the report.

To contextualize, the 19 acre-feet of water deficit is equal to the capacity of approximately 9.38 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

At the meeting’s outset, CCSD General Manager Jerry Gruber begged for civility, urging public commenters to “chill out on the theatrics, and stop making it a bigger deal than it really is.”

The audience collectively scoffed, and accusations, lamentations, and suggestions flew fast and furious during nearly an hour of scathing public comment by 17 different speakers. The comments followed a general rule: the angrier the speaker, the louder the applause.

Aggrieved residents shifted blame between Gruber, District Engineer Bob Gresens, and various board members for the water shortage depending on who was speaking. Cambrians, on the whole, were unhappy with the prospect of paying surcharges on their water bills; the lack of an effective drought-response plan or stable, long-term water source; and the perceived absence of transparency and good communication between the community and the governing body.

“Today was the first day in four days I’ve taken a bath, because I care about conservation, and I care about the Earth,” said Cambria resident Tina Dickason. “I think we’ve been lied to. If you don’t act in a way that is responsible, the next action is recall, and I will be the one to start it.”

Gruber, who enjoyed initial popularity after replacing embattled former general manager Tammy Rudock in June 2011, had plentiful scorn directed his way by upset residents and impatient board members.

As Gruber was preaching patience, conservation, and a water committee to solve the water supply issue, several board members who disagreed with his demure attitude cut him off.

Board vice president Jim Bahringer said more immediate action was needed, and proposed buying a $1 million modular desalination unit from the U.S. Army with grant funds. Such a unit could pump out 240,000 gallons per day, he claimed.

Director Amanda Rice made an emotional plea for civility and reason, suggesting meeting face-to-face with top consumers and asking them to reduce their usage.

Director Gail Robinette decried Gruber’s plan and countered that the CCSD had to “look further” than just conservation: “We have to put this to rest tomorrow, or, even better, this afternoon,” she said.

Board members wanted a public hearing to potentially implement emergency water measures as soon as possible, but Gruber and CCSD staff said they needed more time to research and prepare.

“I don’t think the world’s going to come to an end in six or seven days,” Gruber said to more grumbles and groans from the audience.

The board set the hearing date for Sept. 20.

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