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Cambria Pulling Together Through Drought

Water conservation in Cambria has become not only a way of life for its 6000 residents, it’s become an absolute necessity to save the town’s water supply from going dry. While the ongoing drought has affected all of California, it has hit this popular tourist destination along the north of San Luis Obispo County particularly hard.

“It’s extremely critical,” says Jerry Gruber, general manager of the Cambria Community Services District. “Just like the rest of California, we’re dependent upon our water source from two separate aquifers, the San Simeon aquifer and the Santa Rosa aquifer and we’re on the tail end of a three year drought and right now our water situation is extremely critical right now.”

The situation has caused all of Cambria to work together conserve as much water as possible. Through a variety of creative and resourceful methods, water usage is down 44 percent, a considerable amount above the 20 percent Gov. Jerry Brown has recommended statewide.

“It’s been a process that’s included mandatory restrictions implemented by the governing body of the community,” said Gruber. “Also on a voluntary basis just a willingness for everybody, not just the residents, but the business community, the hotels, the motels, the restaurants to embrace water conservation.”

With the use of potable water now banned for outdoor uses, such as irrigation, residents have had to resort to other ways to water their plants. One such method has been rain collection, a method used by Chris Lewi and his wife Diane in their home located in the Marine Terrace section of town.

“We have two rooflines in our house and that water goes into rain gutters funnel into downspouts,” said Lewi. “Those downspouts feed into rainwater collection tanks. It’s as simple as water running downhill.”

Lewi said his seven rainwater collection tanks hold about 1900 gallons of water and even though Cambria has been in severe drought conditions the past three years, they still fill up.

“The math is pretty simple, said Lewi. “For a thousand feet of roofline, an inch of rain will get you 600 gallons of water and that adds up pretty fast.”

Lewi purchased his previously used collection tanks from a farmer in Templeton and said the entire system cost less than $1000.

Lewi also utilizes another efficient and inexpensive method to conserve water. “We also do greywater from our washing machine, the laundry to landscape system, which is incredibly easy and has worked really, really well.”

Greywater from the washing machine is routed outside through a hose directly onto landscaping. “It’s very low tech, but it works great, said Lewi. “I move this hose around the planting beds here and these plants have never been so happy.”

A couple of miles away in the Park Hill district, Ron Mileur and his wife Laurie are also doing their part to help save water.

“Everybody’s pitching in, said Miluer, who moved to Cambria from Utah last year. “So indoors, you use as little water as possible at the kitchen sink, you don’t take as many showers, shorter showers, we save water in a little bucket when we’re warming up, we use it to flush the toilet, we don’t flush the toilet all the time, that’s normal in Cambria these days.”

Mileur also purchases non-potable water from an outside source to use for his outdoor irrigation, which is a common practice for Cambrians.

“People usually do one of two things, said Mileur. “They either hire someone to hire non-potable water to their property, or a lot of folks have pick-ups with tanks in the back and they get their own non-potable water and haul it to their house.”

Don Ukkestad, a longtime Cambria resident, frequently hauls water drawn from a private well near San Simeon State Park. “It’s is an attempt to keep expensive plants alive that my wife had been planting over the years,” said Ukkestad. “It’s a once a week thing, take five loads, 1000 gallons, that’s $30.”

Over the course of a year, Ukkestad is paying hundreds of dollars, not only for the water, which costs 3 cents per gallon, but also for the gas needed to make the round trip, which is several miles.

“I’ve gotten used to it, said Ukkestad. “It’s the only alternative other than buying water from a big water truck and that’s on a cost basis and this is s better way for me.”

Cambria businesses, which includes many geared towards the year-round tourist economy, has also played a vital role in the conservation effort. Particularly helpful has been a commitment by the lodging industry to reduce its water usage.

“We’ve got signage posted everywhere that lets (tourists) know as soon as they walk into the office and then we have signage in the rooms as well, so they see it, but as they check-in, we let them know, are you aware there is a drought, Cambria has been affected severely by it and can you please help us out, that reinforced with every business that they go into,” said Tim Hayden, co-owner and operator of the Creek side Inn.

Hayden adds the Creekside Inn, like most other motels and hotels in the area, has been completely retrofitted with low-flow hot water heaters, faucets, showers and toilets. He has also reduced water usage on outdoor landscaping as well.

Just a few blocks away at the historic Mozzi’s Saloon, the popular bar is like many Cambria establishments that no longer provides free water for customers.

“In the past, customers would ask for a water with a drink, said Mozzi’s owner, Mitchell Gregory. “And more times than not, that water would go untouched just left on the bar, so we would have to throw out a lot of water, so Mozzi’s now serves water in a bottle for a nominal fee for it and most people don’t complain about it.”

Gregory adds Mozzi’s has also retrofitted its faucets and toilets and has instituted a new restroom policy as well. Now, only customers are allowed to use the restrooms, which forces non-customers to look elsewhere.

“Not to really scare people away, said Gregory. “But just to inform them of our conditions here and signage on the door too, one thing that was clever, I just said, simple, no buy, no pee.”

The water situation in Cambria should improve dramatically in just a few days. Over the past six months, the Cambria Community Services District has been building a $9 million brackish water treatment plant adjacent to San Simeon State Park.

“It has UV, which is ultraviolet, it has filtration and reverse osmosis,” said Gruber. “It will be drawing groundwater and brackish water and will be withdrawing that and putting it through the micro-filtration process, through the reverse osmosis and through the UV process to disinfect the water.”

The plant recently received permitting from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and is now going through a detailed start-up process of testing and commissioning. Water production is expected to begin as soon as December.

While the new plant won’t end the drought, it will give the thirsty community a much needed dependable, secondary source of potable water.

“We still need rain, we still need rain to recharge our aquifers, but this is a plan that will allow us to have a reliable source of water in drought times and times when there is not drought,” said Gruber.

“What we’re excited about is that we believe it’s the solution for coastal communities of this size to address their water shortage issues,” said Gruber.

Gruber believes the community-wide conservation effort in Cambria is a model for all of California.

“I think it’s a way of life and I think we’re a microcosm for that way of life,” said Gruber. “I think communities this size or are much larger throughout California can embrace.”

Lewi agrees, noting his lifestyle, despite many challenges and changes, has not been adversely affected. “It’s completely doable, we are not suffering in life at all and I think the state could learn a lot from little Cambria.”

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