In the News

In Cambria, a cautionary tale on debating desalination

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/29/12

CAMBRIA -- Eight years ago, Pete and Debbra Johnson bought a third of an acre overlooking the Santa Lucia Mountains, a range dotted with boutique wineries and eucalyptus groves.

The letter carrier and high school teacher hoped to build a modest home for their retirement to this coastal hamlet of 6,200 residents. The Central Valley couple bought the property for $130,000 and joined a list of would-be residents waiting for new water service enabled by a seawater desalination plant.

But divisive town politics and environmental fears about the facility have stalled their plans, perhaps indefinitely.

After yet another frustrating town meeting in July over how to provide more drinking water amid limits on groundwater pumping and storage, Pete Johnson lit up a cigarette and cracked open a can of beer as he stood beside his camper shell.

"It's soured my enthusiasm about moving here," he said. "It's just such a battle."

Cambria could prove a cautionary tale for Santa Cruz, where the city and neighboring Soquel Creek Water District have proposed desalination as protection against drought and depleted groundwater basins. The potential for growth has been central to the dispute over the controversial practice of transforming salty seawater into a drinkable source.

But tying up a proposal in endless debate could lead to drastic measures.

The Soquel Creek District has proposed a moratorium on new hookups without desalination, and Santa Cruz will have to implement severe rationing in the very worst drought years.


In a town of just 3,700 water connections and a maximum build-out of 4,650, there are more than 660 properties on a water wait list started in 1986 and closed in 2001. The Johnsons are 438 on that list, which they joined expecting the district would build a desalination plant anticipated to supply up to 1.1 million gallons of water per day, or about half the size as the facility planned for Santa Cruz.

The Johnsons can't vote in San Luis Obispo County because they aren't technically residents. But they pay property taxes and keep their land clear to avoid fire danger in what, like Santa Cruz, can be a rainless region from May to October.

Ever since Cambrians passed on a plant approved by regulators in the 1990s, the Cambria Community Services District has grappled with how to meet demand and answer critics who urge greater conservation and stronger regional water management. For nearly a decade, the district has pursued desalination but is still at the drawing board after regulators blocked a request this spring to test beach wells for taking in seawater.

The district's water supply comes exclusively from wells on the Santa Rosa and San Simeon creeks, several of which are fouled by contamination. The district is authorized to take a limited amount of water each year off the creeks, but like Santa Cruz, is limited in ways to store winter runoff.

Mary Webb, a Cambria resident since 1986, is vice president of Greenspace, the Cambria Land Trust. She favors revising demand estimates and increasing conservation rather than building a plant estimated to cost new water customers $19 million to $23 million.

"I do feel we have room for growth, but I am against a project that provides an unlimited amount of growth," Webb said.

Other residents, such as former South Bay resident Jim Crescenzi, who moved to Cambria to retire, said he believes a vocal minority keeps the town from reaching its economic potential. He is disappointed the state Coastal Commission ruled against a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to test well sites, saying, "We didn't get past first base."

Environmental scientist Tom Luster, the California Coastal Commission's desalination expert, said water officials "were trying to do the right thing but went about it in a way that went sideways."

He said they chose a creek in a protected natural reserve with endangered species issues. Now they are reassessing how much water they actually need and whether it can be achieved through conservation, recycling or additional storage, he said.

Meanwhile, the Johnsons and other property owners wait.

"This has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life," Pete Johnson said. "I don't think I'll ever be able to build a house here."

See Deconstructing Desal in Santa Cruz

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