Water, Water Everywhere
It certainly has been a challenging few weeks for the Cambria Community Services District employees. They’ve been inundated from every possible direction, with never-ending rain straining every resource. From the well fields to the brine pond, water, water everywhere. The town, the surrounding hills, the beaches and the roads were assaulted by blessed and cursed rain. It was all hands on a flooded deck. Danger. A slip, a missed step, a falling tree, or a power line. Look left, get pummelled from the right. Miss something over there while trying to fix something over here, and bad things can happen.
At the same time, the CSD staff leadership was under a different deluge – one of warnings and eventually notices of violation from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Some of these issues overlapped, with the rains exacerbating the strain and driving serious and consequential real-time decision-making, each choice the best that could be made, knowing that the downside of other things put aside could come back to haunt. There is real danger in these times.
Pick up a shovel or spreadsheet? Answer a public request or comply with an agency requirement? Ensure safety or ensure administrative compliance? Ask for help or ask forgiveness? Whatever call is made, another one will be made by someone else. Such is a life in public service. Plenty of support when someone gets hurt, and plenty of told-you so’s when someone comes up short.
Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. Thomas Paine
In the weeks since the last Board meeting, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board sent Notices of Violation to the CCSD. Each notice contained specific complaints, and each listed infraction carried the potential for fines; the number of instances times the dollar amounts per violation quickly added up to a theoretical fine closing in on $600,000.00 all in. Startling, disturbing and definitely eye-catching. Which is why the headlines led with it in one form or another. Not Fake News, but certainly tone-setting.
A careful reading of the credible news articles revealed a more detailed and nuanced view of the situation. The vast majority of the violations were administrative – late or incomplete reports being the main bloc of issues. The reporting requirements placed on the CSD are not trivial; some would argue they are close to punitive. The reports seem to be required so the Water Board and other oversight agencies can monitor and manage any potential issues that could compromise the health and safety of both citizens and the environment. Important stuff, and each agency seems to take these data points very seriously. Timeliness of the reports likely impact the reporting the respective agencies need to do, and on it goes.
A deeper dive into the reporting and updates from the involved parties reveal that the draconian tone of the notices (and the subsequent headlines) were meant to convey a message – “Hey, guys – we are very serious here. Get it together fast!!!” Further reading offered a more conciliatory and even encouraging posture from agency representatives. While not absolution, it revealed a more pragmatic and less dramatic approach to solving the problems that drove the notices.
The General Manager acknowledged the violations, and accepted that he and his staff had to do much better to win the trust of the agencies and the public. Significant progress has been made against the backlog of late reporting. Root causes were identified, and process changes and personnel realignments were made to better manage the requirements going forward.
Still – those headlines! The most extreme of the stories flew around Social Media like the winning Lottery numbers. To some, I guess, there were.
I never expect to see a perfect work from an imperfect man. – Alexander Hamilton
Throughout the onslaught, some very serious questions were raised around accountability. There is no doubt that the General Manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring the CSD’s obligations are met. He’s The Guy. Responsibilities for individual deliverables fall across different parts of the organization, and many are shared among different, interlocking functions, but when things go boom, people are looking for that “one throat to choke.” He is the one who takes the beating, no matter how fair or unfair. I think he accepts that responsibility, and so far he has stood up and taken the heat. He also stood tall and apologized for his comments at an earlier meeting, directing his words to the individual he scuffled with and the agency he inaccurately represented. Most importantly, he has taken action to correct what needed correcting. Still, there are members of the community who are demanding his head. Some have been taking small snips, others flashing their blades wildly. Still others lay out stones in the road hoping he will stumble over one and knock his own head off. Or lose his cool, speak out of turn, and force the hand of say, oversight agencies.
Others take a more measured view, shut out the noise, and deal with the facts. Not a single dollar in fines has been levied based on the Notices Of Violation. That could change, and maybe it could result in a significant fine. Maybe there will be a nominal fine or penalty. Maybe the oversight will be ramped up and the reporting requirements tightened. Or maybe, with considered review, opportunities to reshape some of the requirements will make it easier to comply while maintaining the correct levels of safety and situational awareness. I struggle to think of a reason an agency would severely punish a community for these types of infractions. I wonder why some community members seem almost gleeful at the prospect. Weird, right?
I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too! – Margaret Hamilton
You know what else is weird? The incredible swiftness with which some loyal friends and supporters of the Board President tossed her under the Prius and sped away because she did not do their bidding. She (GASP!!!!) voted the way she thought was best. Well, hot damn!! I fear some people don’t quite know how representative government is supposed to work. It is interesting to see some of these folks go on about free and equal, but when they don’t get the specific actions they want they call for the overthrow of their own votes. To quote some bozo in Washington. “SAD!”
With every meeting and every conversation, it becomes clearer that no matter what the explanation, what the reasoning or what the evidence says, some folks simply will not believe anything the Board says about the Sustainable Water Facility. From the conditions that drove the rapid development and build out of the facility, to the funding of the project, the rebranding, and the current status, required changes and ongoing permitting, every position given by the Board is called into question by those who oppose the plant, along with pretty much everything else that is the District’s responsibility. Every question has been answered, and just about ever answer has been rejected. Short of allowing folks to place fingers in wounds nothing will change any mind. This is really too bad. But if the foundational mindset is that there never was an emergency and the facility was always intended to fuel growth, therefore everyone involved is corrupt and dishonest, this will never change. It becomes a game of attrition.
I often question my own view of the facts, so I reach out to different members of the resistance to ask for a better understanding of their positions. Results have been mixed, with some good, open and civil conversations, and some sharp, “stick to the issues and “What do you not see?” retorts, as if coming to different conclusions somehow makes me a dullard.
Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. – Alexander Hamilton
How Do We Listen?
There were a couple of real head-scratching exchanges during the last meeting. They illustrate our collective differences in how we listen, what we hear through our own filters and biases, and how we respond to what was said. A few quick examples:
- The GM went through, in some detail, the actions he and the staff have taken in response to the Notices of Violation. He highlighted a few of the drivers that contributed to late reporting, including samples that are sent to different labs around the country, resulting in uneven and delayed results needed to populate the required reports. He outlined the steps taken to remove this particular stumbling block; later, in public comment a citizen referred back to the GM’s comments as an example of finger-pointing and shifting blame. Now, my initial reaction was “that’s not what I heard.” Director Bahringer’s response confirmed my take on what was said.
- Another citizen (and prior candidate for a Board seat) spoke about the loan agreement that funded a large part of the facility, saying we have “hocked everything we own…”and painted a dire picture of having everything in town seized if we default. I wonder if he read a different loan agreement, because I didn’t see anything like that in the one I read.
- A third example was an exchange between Directors Farmer and Sanders regarding the work needed to be done to complete the EIR. Director Sanders shared his experienced opinion that documents like the EIR often go through a complicated response process, and at times the information that agencies have requested in their review comments are already in the document, and could be found by a more careful review of the data provided. Director Farmer replayed that back as Director Sanders blaming the Agencies for not doing a good job, rather than the original EIR document being flawed. Certainly not what I heard Director Sanders say, but that’s how Director Farmer heard it.
- The last example of what was said versus what was heard – in discussing the excess water in the brine pond, the GM outlined a plan that is under consideration, pending approval and permitting from the appropriate agencies. That plan includes draining much of the rain and floodwaters out of the pond and into nearby fields, lowering the content of the pond to safe, compliant levels. The second piece of the puzzle would be the ongoing removal of the brine produced by the SWF. This would entail pumping the brine into tankers and trucking it south to a facility that would dispose of it safely. The General Manager did some quick math, and estimated that taking everything currently in the brine pond, pumping and trucking it out could cost around a million dollars, and that clearly was not a feasible solution. This was relayed back to me in an email as “The estimate at the meeting was at least $1 million to dispose of what’s there now. “
Perhaps these few examples can highlight why it might be helpful to take a minute or two, think about what we hear, ask clarifying questions, or even replay a recording to validate our thoughts. However, if we all go into a situation with set jaws and contentious minds, not much will change. A war of attrition.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest – Paul Simon
Once Upon A Time
A friend shared with me an article by Nathan Welton from July 2004, detailing the multiple environmental groups who engaged in the battles over the Hearst development efforts. I was struck by the sheer number of different and overlapping groups, and the fractures and tensions among them as they battled to find a common voice.
This section caught my attention: “Leading up to that event was raucous name-calling littering editorial pages — one recent letter painted North Coast county supervisor Shirley Bianchi “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hearst Corp.” for her support of the current preservation and development plan.”
“Meanwhile, a former adviser to the Environmental Defense Center has admonished the group for having the temerity to make a public request for documents related to the Hearst deal.”
“And Sierra Club officials are threatening to kick local board member Tim O’Keefe out of the organization for publicly airing his differences over Hearst.”
Turn on a trusted and dedicated public figure – check.
Get mad about public document requests – check.
Exile individuals for airing differences of opinion – check.
The more things change…