Water, unlocked?

Citizens debate whether conservation worked in thirsty Cambria



Despite years of telling Cambria residents there’s not enough water to go around, the Cambria Community Services District now has some good news: That water shortage? No so bad, it turns out.

And while that’s music to the ears of the hundreds of lot owners on a long-standing waitlist to develop their properties and open water lines, other residents are questioning the numbers and motives of a board of directors that’s historically pursued construction of a desalination plant, even in light of successful conservation efforts and a declining population.

In November 2001, the district placed a moratorium on issuing new water meters, citing a demand overshadowing the then-roughly-6,500-resident community’s water supply. The moratorium was to be in place until the district approved a new water management plan and a new alternative source of water was found.

The district has approved its new water plan, but its preferred alternative water source—a long-debated seawater desalination plant—seems, for the time being, to be dead in the, uh, water. The California Coastal Commission, which has regulatory control over projects in the coastal zone, formally rejected a proposal to test for a proposed site at the environmentally sensitive mouth of Santa Rosa Creek in December 2011.

The good news for the district, however, is that according to new numbers from the water plan, conservation efforts have succeeded in reducing water usage.

According to the new urban water management plan, the district pumped 682 acre-feet of water in 2011. And though that’s just slightly up from the 672 acre-feet it pumped in 2010, it’s a major decrease from the 798 acre-feet in 2001, when the emergency was declared.

Those numbers, coupled with a population that’s declined by roughly 200 people since the moratorium, have the board of directors now pushing the idea of sending intent-to-issue letters for somewhere in the ballpark of 10 new meters. Doing so would require the blessing of not only the county, but also the coastal commission.

Board president Allan MacKinnon told New Times that opening up the connections would translate to more property taxes and other revenues, which he said would be a boon to a district saddled with an aging infrastructure and high employee costs. But resident Mary Webb, who’s been critical of the board on many issues—including the pursuit of desal—said that the board has publicly floated the idea of issuing these lines to businesses, not residences.

“It’s like they think it’s their moral obligation to give water to more businesses,” Webb told New Times. “Since when is it the CCSD’s job to boost the local Chamber [of Commerce]? It’s their job to service their residents.”

MacKinnon shook off that assertion, telling New Times the district is specifically interested in the new water lines going directly to residents. He did add that 10 new meters would translate to about 50 new local jobs, however.

Some critics of the plan also say that opening the door for a handful of meters and then shutting it again could actually expose the district to the risk of litigation. Up to this point, a group comprised of waitlisted landowners known as the United Lot Owners of Cambria—or the creative acronym UnLOC—have been waiting in the wings, lobbying for such a plan.

UnLOC has argued that the water shortage isn’t as bad as the district had made it out to be. Some members of the group see the new water numbers as vindication.

The organization, which also includes a few attorneys specializing in land-use issues, hasn’t been successful in litigation against the district. But some residents—and even the district’s own legal counsel—have warned that opening a limited number of meters could change that.

In a memo dating back to March 2011, Assistant District Counsel David Hirsch warned the board that there are “complexities” with possible “unclear consequences” involved with lifting the water moratorium. Specifically, Hirsch states that the original emergency declaration required a new water source before more meters could be issued.

“… [The] reality is that there is still a finite, limited supply of water that has not been ‘replenished or augmented’ since the emergency declaration in 2001. Fundamentally, nothing has changed,” Hirsch wrote.

MacKinnon said he’s confident the district is on legal safe grounds.

Given that the board’s long-preferred desalination project is on hold, that alternative source seems a next-to-impossible goal for the near future. But the board doesn’t seem to be letting that idea get in its way.

Over the last two months, General Manager Jerry Gruber has been tasked with forming an ad hoc committee—a nonpublic body—to discuss water alternatives. But many residents are skeptical that “alternatives” is another muffled way of saying “alternative sites” for a desal plant, not water sources, such as gray water systems or further conservation strategies.

That suspicion is compounded by the fact that no effort was made to include residents in that committee, and those who told New Times they would love to participate are worried the district is only recruiting “team players”—i.e. desal proponents.

Resident Steve Figler, for example, said he has repeatedly tried to contact board and district members to no avail.

“I have continuing concerns about the secrecy of how the board operates, particular on the issue of the committee,” Figler said. “But this might be their strategy.”

Gruber did not return requests for comment, but MacKinnon said the committee includes himself, fellow board member Muril Clift, Gruber, and members of the district’s staff; he declined to offer further details.

The board is scheduled to vote at its next meeting, set for June 28, on the preliminary plan to issue intent-to-serve letters, asking district staff how best that can be done.

The district will hold a workshop to seek input on water alternative priorities at 1 p.m. on June 14 at the Cambria Vet’s Hall, and the public is encouraged to participate.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain is drained. Reach him at

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