H20 and the Central Coast: The critical connections between water, jobs and housing

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Posted at 10:00 AM, Feb 19, 2022

A fairly decent start to this year's rainy season quickly dried up.

The Central Coast of California is a story of ebbs and flows, wet years and drought.

From man-made reservoirs to underground aquifers, we need to store rain that falls in wet years to help supply the never-ending demand for water during the dry years. But it's a constant battle to make sure there's enough set aside to go around.

Farmers and residents alike look to the wet season wondering if it will bring a surplus or, once again, drought.

"I worry about next year," said Brent Burchett, San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau Executive Director. "So if this drought is year two of a two-year drought, maybe we're gonna be okay, but if this is something and it goes on for five or six years, we're talking about a serious problem here."

Tom Ikeda's family has been farming on the Central Coast for generations.

He has to decide each year how much water he can use and what crops will support the farm.

"We have to grow what we can sell," said Ikeda, owner of Ikeda Bros. "We can grow the most beautiful head lettuce with very little water, but if we can't sell, it doesn't do any good. The water is wasted."

Farming is part of the culture of the Central Coast and big business.

Ikeda's farm alone supports six of his family members, 35 full-time employees, and more than 100 seasonal workers.

"It's difficult because farming is something special in SLO County," Burchett said. "It's part of our landscape, our signature industry here, our viewshed."

But it's a balancing act, making sure there's enough water to go around.

The drought means Ikeda is not hiring the number of seasonal workers he normally would, but he also hasn't had to lay anyone off yet.

And that's the problem - water brings jobs and employs Central Coast residents.

"It's a huge contributor to our economy," Burchett explained. "Two and a half-billion dollars to our local economy just from agriculture. Thirteen-thousand jobs and we can't do any of this stuff without water."

But those residents need affordable housing and affordable housing also requires water.

If new sources of water aren't being created, the existing water has to be shared among even more users.

That's where city utility departments and community services districts come in - making sure there's enough water to go around.

"Any water purveyor in California who serves over 3,000-acre-feet of water or more than 3,000 service connections are also required to have what's called a water shortage contingency plan," said Mychal Boerman, San Luis Obispo Utilities Department Deputy Director.

That plan outlines what happens during periods of a water shortage. If there's less than five years supply left, mandatory conservation measures kick in.

Each community has its own water supply - some shared between communities.

The City of San Luis Obispo gets water from the Salinas, Whale Rock, and Nacimiento reservoirs as well as groundwater and recycled water supplies, but those sources come at a cost. A robust water supply means city residents pay more.

"The water prices in the City of San Luis Obispo are generally a little bit higher than neighboring communities," Boreman said.

With the extra income, the city is working on additional water treatment and groundwater sources.

"With that, we get the added security that some of the other communities right now aren't benefiting from," Boerman added.

In neighboring Arroyo Grande, residents pay less but also have less water.

The City of Arroyo Grande enacted its stage one water restrictions in October.

Lopez Lake, the city's primary water source, dropped to 15,000 acre-feet, the trigger for mandatory reductions

"We get reduced deliveries at that level from the county, flood control district, so we enacted our stage one water shortage emergency," said Shane Taylor, Arroyo Grande Utilities Manager.

That means everyone has to cut back, residents and commercial users alike.

"It requires mandatory reductions for all of our single-family, multi-family and commercial irrigations," Taylor explained.

"We use both sprinkler and drip irrigation," Ikeda said. "If we were limited on water, we may try to use more drip irrigation."

Ultimately, that may mean less income as the types of crops may change. Or in the worst-case scenario, leaving farmland fallow and laying off employees.

"We need to have a weather pattern change," Taylor said. "We need it to rain. That's the bottom line. We're just way in a rain deficit."

With no significant new sources of water coming online, the only way to increase the supply is to save water wherever we can and that takes cooperation from residents and businesses alike.