Interview with Jan Marx, Mayor of San Luis Obispo

By: The Infocast Water Team

As Infocast’s 3rd Annual California Water Summit draws near, the Infocast Water Team had the pleasure of recently interviewing Jan Marx, Mayor of the City of San Luis Obispo on her thoughts regarding the future of the coastal California city’s water challenges. We welcome you to read the interview below.

Infocast: What are the unique challenges regarding water from where you sit, as mayor of San Luis Obispo?

Janice:  If you look at drought maps of the state, you’ll see that the worst, the most extreme drought is colored a dark reddish brown. That is the color of the city of San Luis Obispo and the county in general – it’s kind of “ground zero” for the drought. Our city is a charter city, a county seat, a mission city and houses a major university, Cal Poly. The city underwent a severe drought in the late 1980s and at that point the city council decided to devote planning and infrastructure resources to becoming as water-secure as we possibly could. I was not on the council at that time but was on the Planning Commission so I was aware of what was going on. Earlier, the city voters had voted not to participate in the state water system on the grounds that it was too expensive, unreliable and would hurt the delta and the natural environment of the state as a whole.

So, having done that, the next question was “Well, how are we going to make ourselves as water secure as we could be?” At that point, we had 2 reservoirs. One was the Salinas Reservoir (also known as Santa Margarita Lake) which was built by the army corps of engineers during World War II to provide water for Camp San Luis (the National Guard Camp, headquartered just outside of town). The city got the water rights to that water in the 1960s. The other source was Whale Rock Reservoir which is in Cayucos, a beach town to the north of the city. It’s shared by 3 entities: the city of San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly University, and the California Men’s Colony (a prison). We started recycling water as part of our wastewater treatment plant, now known as the Water Resource and Recovery Facility.

We were taking water essentially from 2 watersheds, bringing it into our watershed and then recycling. At that time, the projection was that that was all that we would need to make ourselves water secure. But, as it turned out, supplying that infrastructure to the southerly part of the city which are annexation areas was very expensive – much more so than what people had considered. So the next question was, should we participate in getting water from Nacimiento Reservoir? It’s located in San Luis Obispo County but is actually owned by the County of Monterey. In order to get water from that facility, we had to participate in the building of a pipe that’s approximately 75 miles from Nacimiento Reservoir down to the city of San Luis Obispo.  Now we have Nacimiento water – and we just secured another 2100 acre feet from Nacimiento. This is arranged contractually as one of the partners with the County of Monterey, as part of a Joint Powers Agreement. And so, that’s where we are right now. The other thing I want to say is that our residents are very conscientious about conserving water. We’re down to the average of about 94 gallons per person.  The state has required us to get down to 120 gallons per person.  – so we’re actually voluntarily using less water than that.

During the first drought we started an incentive program for low flow toilets and low flow showers. We’ve never had a building moratorium but instead have tried to emphasize conservation and then construct better infrastructure. The basic challenge is conservation – and not just of potable water, but also looking at the water usage of landscaping. Most of California is a desert naturally, yet often it looks like the countryside of England with its green lawns and that kind of thing. So, it’s changing the concept of what is really beautiful in terms of landscaping. Conservation is not necessarily the easiest direction but it is least expensive in terms of responding to drought. In terms of opportunities to conserve, I think we need to look to countries like Israel and Australia and New Zealand. What do we do in a drought situation and how can we capture as much water as possible via rainfall? I think there are also opportunities for recapturing storm water. I’m particularly interested in that, as because of our water recycling program, this city actually produces more recycled water than we can use.

We also have responsibility towards an endangered species of salmon that lives in San Luis creek (which goes through the city). It is an active salmon stream, which indicates the relative cleanliness of the water. We have to keep the water up to a certain level in the creek, and when we began recycling water, there was more water going into the creek. So the salmon population went up. Because of their special status, we have a responsibility to keep that water supply sufficient for the salmon. Beyond that, we actually are sending excess recycled water down to Avila Beach. It’s tertiary so it’s not a drinking water level but it is cleaner coming through our city than it is coming into our city. There is agricultural runoff going into the stream as it enters San Luis Obispo, but by the time it’s been treated through our wastewater treatment plant, it’s actually close to drinking water level as it leaves the city. Another opportunity would be to take that tertiary treated water, clean it up one more time, and then use it to augment the other sources of water. There’s also the possibility of ground water recharge, which some entities are doing with state water. There are also other possibilities in terms of storage of storm water.

Infocast: What do you think needs to be done to facilitate development of water assets and infrastructure and who needs to be involved? What’s next to move it along?

Janice: In terms of the development of water infrastructure, I think there needs to be local control as much as possible, or at least really strong local input. The other thing is that there needs to be a lot of clarity about how much water infrastructure is actually needed. For instance, if we have depleted aquifers, is it possible to direct storm water into depleted aquifers and use them as essentially natural underground tanks to store the water? Because you’re not going to have the same evaporation or siltation issues with aquifers that you have with reservoirs.

So, in my own opinion, and again, I am not an expert on this but I’d say building large dams would be a last resort. We need to work with nature and within watersheds as much as possible. Recycling is especially important. In terms of desalination, I’m of mixed opinion because of the effect on the ocean and marine life. What do we do with this very strongly salty byproduct? But it partly depends on the specifics. There are situations for instance where brackish water can be put through a desalination-type process. There is a plan afoot to utilize Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s desalination plant to supplement the supply of water in the southerly part of the county, essentially Lopez Lake which is a reservoir.  A 7-mile pipe would have to be built to do that. Cost is very important when you’re looking at development of water infrastructure, as well as the effect on the environment.  Requiring green water harvesting in new developments in areas of the state that actually have a lot of rainwater.  The unreliability of state water is something that I think the state really needs to work on, and that has to do with utilizing technology and alternate sources of energy as much as possible.  And, as much as possible I think we need to keep our groundwater in the ground.

Infocast:  What’s next for San Luis Obispo in terms of water?

Janice:  My goal in terms of the next 2 or 3 years is to continue to make San Luis Obispo as water secure as we possibly can be. We have about 46,000 people here at night and then about 100,000 during the day, including the university, which is actually just outside of our limits but we share the same water and sewer infrastructure.  We’re the job center and the cultural center and the commercial center of the county. And then, we have a lot of tourists. There’s a lot of intense water usage going on in the city and it’s really crucial to the vitality of the city. So, that’s my main goal for the next 2 years is to increase water security.

Part of that has to do with simple awareness, so that people don’t waste potable water. Unfortunately, our recycled water only goes to the southerly part of the city because that’s where the new development is. And so, that’s another challenge is ‘can we bring it to the older part of the city which is in the north’ and also encourage Cal Poly to be able to utilize recycled water. Right now, they contribute to the recycled water because they’re hooked into the sewer plant but they are not able to utilize recycled water because that purple pipe infrastructure is just not there. So, we’re trying to work with the university. And again, as much recycled water we can direct to landscaping, that means that potable water will not be used for that same purpose. The goal is to reserve potable water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, that kind of thing.