This year the Coastside County Water District is celebrating its 75th year of service to the Coastside. It began in 1947, founded by locals who saw the need for a reliable and safe public water system. In the beginning, CCWD served a little more than 400 customers. Today it has over 7,000 services meeting the needs of 19,000 people living on the Coastside and the businesses that serve Coastside visitors.
There have been three distinct periods in CCWD history: from the beginning to the completion of the Crystal Springs Project that came online in the 1990s and today supplies water from the Crystal Springs Reservoirs, a brief period of pause, and followed in the last 22 years of modernization. These periods have been driven by the changes in the regulatory framework and the attitudes of people here.
The creation of the district, its planning, permits and initial construction happened in just over a year. At its beginning, CCWD established a connection to the San Francisco water system with a pipeline from Stone Dam to the Coastside. Stone Dam creates a reservoir owned by the SFPUC and filled with water from Pilarcitos Lake, high and east of the Coastside. By the 1970s the need for more water became clear. The district began the process that connected to water from the Crystal Springs Reservoirs and is pumped over the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Over time the regulatory process evolved to add protections for the environment. Planning, permits, and construction became a more complex process but still one managed by locals. But by the end of the first phase, the process had also become a tool of political factions that see growth and change as something to be feared and resisted. The CEQA process to protect the environment became a tool to oppose, slow, and increase the cost of development even to maintain public infrastructure.
A former member of the California Coastal Commission told me during a one-on-one meeting that using public infrastructure to stop growth was good public policy. It soon became evident with failing infrastructure and challenges to public health, that he was wrong. During this period, CCWD was threatened with water moratoriums and barriers to replacing aging infrastructure, some of which was older than the district itself.
After a fraught election battle over district leadership, the current phase began the process to renew and modernize the district. A new general manager, Dave Dickson, led the district from 2007 until his recent retirement. Navigating the regulatory process now takes years. Most of this regulation is sensible and needed, but a lot of it just grinds the wheels of bureaucratic process adding to costs and creating delays.
An example of delay produced by inefficient regulation is the current effort to create a water district in Pescadero. Water at Pescadero public schools is not safe to drink from the school’s water fountains. The process to create a new district, San Mateo Supervisor Horsley recently said, has taken four years and is still not complete. This was a process the founders of CCWD accomplished in months.
California needs to modify the regulatory process to better serve our needs and protect the environment. We need sensible regulation that does not delay decisions or that is easily manipulated by hidden agendas. Regulation must not be a tool of actors with backdoor agendas that ignore or sidetrack real necessities.
CCWD is now on the verge of its fourth phase, caused by climate change and future droughts. Recycled water will become a cornerstone in a sustainable and reliable future water supply. At a celebration of CCWD’s 75 years, Mayor Debbie Ruddock spoke forcefully of the need for our community to move forward on recycling now. She is right!
Water recycling protects the environment by reducing harmful discharges of water disinfected but not fully purified into the environment. The prospects for the future are promising if we do it. The technology to recycle water already exists. It is in use today in Southern California. If we are wise, future generations will celebrate this moment with the same pride we have today looking back to 1947 at the origins of an essential piece of the Coastside’s infrastructure.
Jim Larimer lives in Miramar and is a former member of the CCWD board of directors.