The Cambria Water Master Plan published in 2008 established options for increasing the local water supply that included conservation, water storage, acquiring water from Lake Nacimiento west of Paso Robles, from Whale Rock Reservoir above Cayucos, or from a small reservoir to be built on land offered by a local rancher. Another option proposed was the construction of a seawater desalination plant that would provide unlimited water for growth and require installing intake and outfall pipelines into biologically rich protected areas including the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Cambria State Marine Park, and CA Sea Otter Refuge. Ignoring objections from oversight agencies and community concerns about the level of growth this option would provide, the district opted for desalination, a route they had pursued without success since 1999. Greenspace and other regulatory agencies continue to discourage this option because of potential harms to the creeks and lagoons, impacts to creek instream flow as inexpensive fresh water resources are always extracted first, impacts of brine disposal to near-shore sea life and affects to public access to beaches.
June of 2012, Greenspace reexamined past CSD efforts to meeting Cambria’s long term water needs by utilizing the expertise of James Fryer, author of “An Investigation of the Marginal Cost of Seawater Desalination in California” and former head of Marin Municipal Water District’s water conservation programs. “A Review of Water Use & Water Management Alternatives in Cambria, California” is the result of this investigation. Mr. Fryer concluded that past CSD “serious overestimates of water use forecasts”, and “serious underestimates of costs associated with desalination”, combined with “unrealistic and inappropriate policies” and lack of data and analysis supporting policies resulted in the CSD adopting desalination in 2003 as their preferred alternative to provide 602 acre-feet-year of water. Despite Fryer's analysis, the district continued the pursuit of seawater desalination rather than less costly and damaging alternatives that were outlined in his report.
In January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a water emergency for all of California, due to a severe drought that was then entering its fourth year. Taking advantage of the Governor’s suspension of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) during this time, the Cambria CSD claimed that Cambria would run out of water and immediately declared a Stage 3 water emergency. Contractors from the Army Corp’s CDM Smith scrambled to hastily construct a reverse osmosis desalination plant between two coastal creeks in highly protected areas surrounded by CA State Parks campgrounds. The plant uses mixed secondary wastewater effluent. Although brackish water from a “wedge” of sea water intrusion into fresh groundwater under San Simeon Creek lagoon is being extracted, it is not difficult to imagine the lure of drawing in the nearby seawater. The plant was designed to pipe its wastewater—heavily salinated and containing other minerals and chemicals related to the RO process—into a holding pond, where blowers would evaporate it. The blowers, however, were unusable due to noise and the spread of evaporated salts and chemicals over an adjacent State Park campground and nearby farmers’ fields. The pond itself became a wildlife hazard. Currently, the facility cannot be used because of the waste issue, however the CSD continues to investigate ocean outfall.
This complex problem, created by lack of environmental permitting, and an improperly engineered response to a water resource issue that had other, smaller and more cost-effective solutions, is an example of the policy issues which Greenspace addresses. We do not have a position on the ultimately correct water solution for Cambria and other drought-impacted areas. Our primary concern is for the local environment—that land and sea ecosystems remain intact, healthy and able to support native plants and animals, as well as the people who depend upon them. Water is a precious natural commodity in California and we are dedicated to the idea that watersheds have carrying capacities that can be violated only at the risk of whole ecosystem viability and human health.