Cambria, the town of 6,000 resident of which I am one, has been under a building moratorium since 2001 because of lack of water. There’s a list of people in line to be allowed to purchase water meters when and if water becomes available. They bought land over the past thirty years with the vision of building a home some day in the future. Many of them planned to retire here. Without a water meter, they can’t build.
Many homes are for sale in town, California’s real estate market being fraught with foreclosures as well as the usual life changes that cause people to sell their homes. Since many homes in Cambria are second homes, there are plenty of homes for sale.
Despite being in the second year of a drought, the governing board of the community, the Community Services District, has decided to ignore the reality and the laws and issue Letters of Intent to Serve to as many as 20 lot owners whose lots are on the Wait List.
The dusty reality of drinking down local water has arrived for Paso Robles. Those unlucky enough to have wells that have already gone dry, the canaries in the vineyard coal mine, are the voice for us all. It’s no use pretending that digging a deeper well will solve their problem. It’s a problem for all of us.
It’s not that the public and our elected leaders didn’t know that we were running out of water. It was politically inconvenient to act. The people who wanted to use the most water give money to political campaigns. They have such good dinners. Rubbing shoulders with them makes the grubby parts of running for office and sitting through meetings open to people without those silky clothes worthwhile.
When you’re dealing with natural resources, though, eventually comes a day of reckoning. Whether this is it or we can await a yet more dramatic one is a matter is preference. Would you like to start your three days of thirst now, or later? Local politicians postponed making a decision on the Los Osos sewer for 30 years. They’ve ignored Paso Robles’ water problems and now dither in a discussion that should have started years ago.
Get it: the water is gone. There’s some left, but there are a lot of straws in the aquifer and decisions are going to have to be made.
On the west side of the Coastal Range, even as wells run dry in Paso Robles, Cambria’s Community Services District directors pursue the same policies of expanding the number of water users for the community’s own finite water resources. Cambria’s residents don’t have individual wells to give them an early warning as wells go dry. They know water is limited, and have, as individuals and as a community, conserved water and be as prudent as they can in using water wisely. Cambria’s been under a building moratorium because of a lack of adequate water to serve more residents since 2001.
Over the years, the dreamt-of new water sources have proved as ephemeral as mirages on Highway 1. Desalination sputtered out amidst environmental obstacles such as prohibitions against drilling wells in public parks, excessive energy use and no legal place to dispose of the salt removed from the water. Not that the idea is dead. The Army Corps of Engineers continue to report on this dead end project and some persist in thinking that the Coastal Commission is someday going to see the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as more useful for drilling and dumping than just sitting there refreshing itself at the expense of local growth.
The CCSD board is determined to add water users to the diminishing water resources by issuing Letters of Intent to Serve, a first administrative step to allowing new home and group construction. The folly of increasing thirsty users for a resource we know is limited is inexplicable. While the board may get some relief from the pressure of lot owners who lobby them for building permits, take a look at the future: it won’t be comfortable to face the public when water runs out on this side of the hill.
Cambria’s water problem isn’t that there isn’t enough water. There’s enough for the current residents, so long as they are thoughtful users, with a little wiggle room to allow for the vagaries of a climate dogged by drought and the reality that many homes that now stand vacant most of the year will gradually be occupied full time, as their Baby Boom owners retire and come to this end of the rainbow to enjoy retirement. Recent reports of leaks, large enough to send water flowing through residential neighborhoods and require emergency crews, suggest that infrastructure is overdue for maintenance and improvement.
The water problem can be characterized many ways: leadership, technology, political differences, surely more. What Cambria has now is a delicate balance between resource renewal and demand. Our neighbors in Paso Robles are feeling the effects of political failure to protect scarce resources. Cambria should not deliberately follow them into the desert.