Half Moon Bay Review
By Jeanine Gore, Half Moon Bay Review
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Pilarcitos Creek is dying and it's no one's fault.
Scores of wells line the streambank, quietly sucking water from the ground nearby. Individually, they are not responsible for its demise.
But there are dozens of wells at work, some drawing legally, some illegally. Together, they pull hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the earth for use in private residences, farms, ranches, nurseries, golf courses, a landfill, a sprawling hilltop cemetery and the public water district.
Though no one well in particular is draining the creek, there's no denying Half Moon Bay's main waterway is running dry.
Federal officials would like some of that pumping to stop. They are working with local agencies and organizations to make that happen.
"If you look at other watersheds, say in Pescadero, they have problems, but they're not as bad off as Pilarcitos Creek, and they don't have as many diversions - water being taken out of the stream," said Jerry Smith, an associate professor at San Jose State University who helped draft the 1996 Pilarcitos Creek management plan.
It is tough to know how much is being taken from the creek, he said. That's the first problem.
"We don't have a really good handle on summer diversion rates from numerous small users that cumulatively have major impact on the watershed," he said.
Smith has studied watersheds from Marin to Monterey, including many parts of the Central Valley.
Pilarcitos is easily one of the most degraded, he said.
In terms of fish habitat, the watershed's problems are three-fold: There is a lack of water, an abundance of erosion and too many artificial obstructions, such as dams and old culverts. Together, the interplay makes it difficult for the federally protected steelhead trout and other native fish species to access their upstream habitat.
A lost lagoon
The most visible indicator of the stream's ailing state is its tidal lagoon, first documented in an 1856 pre-Civil War coastal survey map.
A century-and-a-half later, fierce competition for water has reduced the creek to little more than a summertime trickle. The lagoon as it once was - a briny watering hole where regal white birds once landed to pluck their breakfast from the mud and young silver-skinned steelhead congregated, growing strong in the protected area before journeying to the ocean - is now gone. It has disappeared.
In its absence, steelhead trout, coho salmon and other fish are left high and dry during the summer and fall.
Smith likened the lagoon to oxygen.
"The problem is, you have a lagoon for June and July potentially, and then it dries up in late summer," he said. "It's kind of like you're able to breathe all day until the afternoon hits and then, when it's 4 o'clock, you can't breathe and then you die."
Like the fish, the creek itself has been choked.
Upstream, dams prevent the water from flowing. Downstream, wells do the same.
Pilarcitos Creek is a microcosm of California's water woes. The push and pull of many years' worth of coastal development has drained the stream, reshaped the surrounding land, eroded the channels and polluted the water.
Over the years, as more and more houses and businesses were built and industry prospered, sections of the stream were filled, willows and other riparian plants that hold back the soil were ripped out, dams and diversions were constructed - and slowly the path of the water changed.
The creek no longer meanders as it once did. And it no longer empties directly into the ocean, probably the long-term effect of enlarging Pillar Point Harbor, experts say.
Until a massive city cleanup this year, the section of stream beneath Highway 1 was littered with shopping carts, plywood and plastic bags. Further down, the water is still fouled with human and animal excrement. In 1992 a Browning-Ferris Industries debris dam failed at Ox Mountain Landfill. Loads of sediment and toxic waste spilled into a tributary that connects with Pilarcitos Creek, destroying precious fish habitat and leaving the water brown and murky.
In fact, the Pilarcitos watershed is rich with history and abuse.
In 1861, shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the first rumblings of a Civil War erupted in the South, the gilded city of San Francisco was rapidly expanding - already 78,000 residents strong, according to U.S. Census statistics.
With a booming economy - agriculture was taking root in addition to gold and silver mining - the city's forecast was bright. But there was one big problem. The city was desperate for additional water supplies.
Spring Valley Water Company, San Francisco's water provider at the time, turned its eye to a small tributary watershed behind Montara Mountain, barely half a square mile wide.
A small earthen dam was constructed, impounding 65 million gallons of water across Pilarcitos Canyon. A year later, in 1862, the first of that water arrived to thirsty San Francisco, transported from Pilarcitos through a long tunnel and 32 miles of redwood flumes.
Today, Pilarcitos Dam remains intact, owned and managed by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. With 49 inches of rainfall per year, the highest average annual rainfall on the Peninsula, Pilarcitos is considered the most productive of the area reservoirs.
Comparatively little of that water makes it downstream, however.
"Most of the (stream's) problems can get fixed if you can get more flow," said Pat Rutten, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. "If you can get San Francisco Public Utilities Commission interested in releasing more water into the stream, that adds viability to the creek and spawning areas."
Little water lots of dirt
In 1870, engineers embarked on another bold project to exploit the remaining watershed two miles below Pilarcitos Reservoir.
Block by granite block, masons constructed the dam in a herringbone fashion. It was the first of its kind. Set in a deep narrow canyon 550 feet above sea level, the dam was built to hold five million gallons. Silt washed down over the past century and a half and filled in all but the top three to four feet of that dam with mud, rock and debris.
The dam, which intercepts water for the SFPUC and Coastside County Water District in Half Moon Bay, is largely seen as an impediment to resolving fish habitat issues downstream.
At the same time the water is removed from the stream, the artificial blockade prevents natural wintertime pulses to flush small bits of gravel downstream. The cobble is important for fish populations.
"The gravel trapped behind Stone Dam is important for spawning, so a few miles behind (the dam) has good - some say pristine - habitat for fish," said Keith Mangold, a local resident who has served on the Pilarcitos Creek Advisory Committee for more than a decade. The group works toward repairing the watershed and resolving its threatened species issues.
As the creek spills out of the craggy and green coastal mountains and moves below toward the city of Half Moon Bay it is besieged by a different kind of trouble.
The dams stop but the diversions begin.
Forty-eight individuals are currently allowed to take up to six million gallons of water per day collectively from the Pilarcitos Creek watershed, according to the California Department of Water Resources Division of Water Rights.
And that is the number of legal takers. There are other, hidden pipes and wells on private property, which the government is not aware of, some experts say.
While it is impossible to know how much water is actually extracted from the ground near Pilarcitos, it is unlikely permit-holders take the maximum amount.
The reason is simple: The water just isn't there, they say.
Big straws in the water
Most of the water drawn from the creek goes to two sources. One of those sources is you. The CCWD provides water to Half Moon Bay and much of the Coastside, and it drew about 35.67 million gallons from wells near the creek last year.
Ocean Colony Golf Course owns a productive well field in the lower Pilarcitos Creek basin.
With so much diverson, lower Pilarcitos is generally short on water. On warm days in the summer and autumn, the stream can literally be seen drying up as it slowly retreats eastward, the visible result of daytime pumping and evaporation.
While it is difficult to know how much water Ocean Colony takes on average, the number of gallons doubtlessly soars into the millions.
The resort pumped 113 million gallons in 2001, reportedly the most recent public disclosure of Ocean Colony usage.
The past does not demand a death sentence. Leo Bauer, a water supply engineer for the SFPUC, said the watershed can be improved despite the continuing need for water.
"I'm sure there are solutions - it only takes time, money and permits," he said.
Last week's water summit in Half Moon Bay was a hit even before anyone could spit out the words "recycled water."
It was a hit because dozens of participants crowded the I.D.E.S. Hall to take a long look at the strained Pilarcitos Creek watershed. They heard ideas and theories about how to revive that creek and provide adequate water supplies for the Coastside. The fact that the auditorium was packed spoke volumes about the attention people are paying to water on the coast.
The answer to the conundrum faced by the creek came clearly and often at the daylong conference: reclaimed water.
If recycled - or reclaimed - water could be used on the Coastside, speakers said, it could perk up the coast's fresh water supply and it could help raise the water levels of Pilarcitos Creek.
It could also water the fairways at Ocean Colony Golf Course, help keep city landscaping green, and potentially aid the irrigation effort of farmers.
Jack Olsen of the Farm Bureau said it could save a little money.
Olsen pointed out that San Diego is reputed to have among the highest water costs in the state - but that water rates on the Coastside are actually three times higher than users pay in San Diego's.
That's why, Olsen said, it's so important to start using recycled water on the coast.
To that end, the Sewer Authority Mid-coastside announced it had just authorized a $35,000 study to determine the cost and quality of producing recycled water in its sewer plant.