Water challenges are many and diverse on California's Central Coast
Where does one start with the Central Coast water drought and crisis?
Take your pick says James Caruso, Senior Planner with the Department of Planning and Building of San Luis Obispo County. “There are things that go back all the way to the California Constitution which makes certain types of water demand, which is groundwater, very difficult to regulate - impossible to regulate.” Over time, with a patchwork of water districts, private wells, and for-profit companies offering water from the same aquifers, “you do that long enough as your pumping grows and grows and you reach a problem like we have in several of our basins.”
In Cambria water has always been an issue. There is no access to it other than what's under the town. The Cambria Community Services District hasn't issued a new water meter for a new house in more than a decade. Having a meter means having a right to be connected to District water. Existing meters become available when a house is demolished and can fetch as much as $250,000. There is a long waiting list. The drought only makes the situation more extreme. Groundwater under Cambria is being exhausted. Many people flush toilets with collected water from their rain gutters as well as from buckets in the shower. Water conservation is being enforced with punitive rates for using more than allotted by the District.
Paso Robles was momentarily headed toward an Old West water conflict between agriculture and homeowners. There are still people willing to go to court to essentially stake their water claim. But a bill in the state legislature to create a Paso Robles water district, supported by farmers and homeowners, appears to be the best chance for the region to manage and conserve water. The wine industry, which has helped to turn the area’s fortunes around, is riding on the availability of water.
Nipomo is another town with no alternative source of water other than it’s wells. The aquifer under the mesa has been in danger of depletion as well as being poisoned by saltwater for two decades. In the early 1990s residents voted down a proposal to connect to a state water project. Two years ago, Nipomo voters rejected a property tax hike to pay for a pipeline from Santa Maria. Michael Lebrun, the General Manager of the Nipomo Community Water Services District, says the district moved forward in its mandate to acquire additional water. One of the key aspects of his job is to do outreach to Nipomo residents to talk about using less water and to deliver the news of rate increases to pay for the pipeline.
In Los Osos, where many of the residents are served by the Golden State Water Company, some customers are angry about steep water bills. They have formed a group called Los OsosFLOW, after a similar one named OjaiFLOW. That group in Ojai recently won a court decision against Golden State Water to purchase its assets and create a new water district. But Golden State Water maintains that water bills reflect the real costs of providing water.
These are just a few of the pain points on the central coast where solutions that please everyone are elusive.
“Water is an emotional thing,” says Dana Merrill, owner of Pomar Junction Winery in Templeton, and board member of the Paso Robles Agriculture Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. “It’s not about who had the water first or who should get it. We all need water and we have to figure it out together.”