These SLO County towns must halt new development due to lack of water, state agency says

Laura Dickinson/ldickinson@thetribunenews.com
·6 min read

The California Coastal Commission wants San Luis Obispo County to immediately halt all new water-using development, including housing, in Los Osos and Cambria.

That’s according to two letters written by Central Coast District Director Dan Carl and sent to the county Planning and Building Department on April 19.

The Coastal Commission also sent a letter on the same day to the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) notifying that it had violated the California Coastal Act over more than three decades due to its water extractions from wells in the San Simeon and Santa Rosa creek aquifers, and requests the locality retract its water service agreements at several properties.

Central in the Coastal Commission’s letters is its concerns that the two small, coastal San Luis Obispo County communities simply do not have a sustainable water supply for existing or new development.

“One of the most obvious foundations on which CDP (coastal development permit) decisions are based under the county’s LCP (local coastal permit) is a determination that projects can be served by an adequate and sustainable water source, including one that does not lead to corollary adverse resource impacts,” one letter to county Planning and Building Director Trevor Keith read. “The Commission has repeatedly made it abundantly clear that the required LCP findings for water supply cannot be made.”

Therefore, the Coastal Commission demands in the letters that the county and CCSD no longer accept permit applications for any new water-using development in the two communities.

“Please do not accept any CDP applications for filing that cannot demonstrate that they have legal access to both a sustainable water source and wastewater treatment services,” the Coastal Commission wrote in its letter to Keith regarding Los Osos.

Each letter to Keith clarifies that the Coastal Commission considers all new “water-using development” to be guesthouses; hotel, motel or home expansions; accessory dwelling units and any development that would “lead to an increase in water use on a given site.”

In the letters, Carl asks that the county not accept applications for new development permits in Cambria and Los Osos until it can find that such development does not increase the strain on the communities’ water supplies.

Los Osos relies on the Los Osos groundwater basin for its water. The basin has been deemed to be experiencing conditions of critical overdraft, and the water within it can be polluted by nitrates or is being degraded by seawater intrusion.

Cambria, on the other hand, relies on water extracted from two aquifers under San Simeon and Santa Rosa creeks. The supply from those creeks is extremely limited and if too much is extracted, important fish and riparian species are put at risk.

Development still allowed in Los Osos, SLO County says

In response to the letter sent regarding development in Los Osos, Keith told The Tribune in an emailed statement that not all new development in the community is prohibited.

“Where new development is allowable in accordance with the LCP, the county has and will continue to take actions that are designed to result in neutral to positive effects on the Los Osos groundwater basin, which may come in the form of growth management and/or requirements relating to water conservation,” Keith wrote. “The county will not approve development proposed on undeveloped properties that require wastewater service within (Los Osos Wastewater Recycling Facility) service boundaries.

“However, the county is obligated to process land use and building permit applications in accordance with existing LCP provisions for development proposed on already developed properties within Los Osos.”

Keith noted that each of those new developments on “already developed properties” must comply with county retrofit or water offset regulations.

The county has accepted at least 10 permits for new water-using developments in Los Osos in the past few years, each of which has been appealed to the Coastal Commission.

“County staff is reviewing Coastal Commission staff’s recent request that the county stop accepting applications for any water-using development in Los Osos, including whether and to what extent the county may have such authority under the current LCP,” Keith added.

General manager: Cambria has ‘obligation’ to serve water to properties

Keith noted that circumstances are different in Cambria, where new development has been put on pause since 2001 when a moratorium on most new water service connections was put in place.

Cambria CSD General Manager John Weigold said the district feels that some development in Cambria must be allowed due to contractual water-serving commitments for certain properties put in place before the moratorium.

Therefore, the Coastal Commission’s letter and notice of violation are difficult to address, he said.

“We’ve recognized for decades that our water supply is vulnerable, especially to drought,” Weigold told The Tribune. “And the district has spent a lot of time and money researching alternative water supplies. ... We basically rely on two responses to our water shortage: One is demand management, basically limiting our usage through conservation, and the second primary response is our water reclamation facility, which right now is only permitted for emergency use.”

The Coastal Commission, in its notice of violation to CCSD, demanded the district stop issuing will-serve letters for any new water-using development.

The Coastal Commission also required the district to retract will-serve letters serving properties that do not have a coastal development permit, which include properties for which the district had existing water-service commitments before the moratorium.

This must be done by May 20, the Coastal Commission said in its notice of violation.

Weigold told The Tribune that the district will not retract those will-serve letters.

“We have a contractual obligation to serve those property owners,” Weigold said. “We don’t really have any leeway there.”

Is Cambria violating California Coastal Act?

According to the Coastal Commission’s notice, the CCSD has extracted water from wells beneath both creeks since 1988 — even though its coastal development permit only authorized extractions from Santa Rosa Creek. San Simeon Creek cannot serve the community without riparian habitats being damaged, the agency says.

Furthermore, the Coastal Commission alleges that the CCSD is violating the Coastal Act because its ongoing water extractions from both of the creeks are harming the fish and riparian species that rely on those water sources.

The Coastal Commission bases this assessment primarily on a 2014 study showing that, during that severe drought year, the creeks did not have enough water flowing to provide adequate riparian habitats.

No more recent studies have been completed to assess the state of the creeks and whether the community’s water extractions have negatively impacted the riparian habitat, Weigold noted.

That’s despite the CCSD being required by its coastal development permit authorizing extractions from the creeks to submit yearly monitoring reports to “ensure that San Simeon Creek resources are being maintained,” the letter states.

Therefore, the Coastal Commission, in its notice of violation, requested the CCSD “submit a water extraction and resource protection plan” for both of the creeks.

That plan must explain how the CCSD will protect and maintain the fisheries, riparian resources and all related habitats associated with San Simeon and Santa Rosa creeks while still extracting water for use in the community. The Coastal Commission requested the plan be submitted no later than June 20.

Weigold noted that the CCSD is still reviewing the Coastal Commission’s notice of violation and consulting with its board of directors and legal counsel on its next steps.