Half Moon Bay Review
Reviving a river: Making a stream come true
By JEANINE GORE
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
There's one way to save Pilarcitos Creek: Put more water in it.
But this simple plan is surprisingly complex.
The withered waterway and its threatened fish populations have suffered from decades of unrelenting abuse, pollution and overconsumption.
Turning the situation around will take years of work, millions of dollars and most importantly, a groundswell of support from a variety of local agencies - public bodies that don't always get along.
Recycled water is largely seen as the solution, a way to decrease dependence on stream sources.
As usual, the devil is in the details.
Dozens of stakeholders depend on Pilarcitos Creek. Locally, the water is used to irrigate crops and golf courses, minimize dust at Ox Mountain Landfill and quench the thirst of Coastside residents. A prime resource for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Pilarcitos water also sustains many parts of the Peninsula.
Each of those users is hesitant to give up water, unless there is a steadfast guarantee that their concessions will leave more water in the stream.
Above all, they want oversight. They want assurance the additional flow will not be usurped by other users - one of which already has its eye on the increased creek water.
"The attitude has always kind of been, well, you guys have all the water, you solve all the problems," said Joe Naras, of the SFPUC, which owns Pilarcitos reservoir. The reservoir withholds millions of gallons of water from flowing downhill into Pilarcitos Creek.
"We're saying well, no, that's not good watershed management," he said. "If it's just a simple matter of releasing water, we'd like to see that it's actually going to fish restoration and not to all those people - all those straws - that use that water for pumping."
Coastside County Water District, however, is interested in a piece of any additional flow - as long as there is a "net gain for the creek," said CCWD President Chris Mickelsen.
He called the potential for more water in Pilarcitos Creek a "win-win" situation.
NOAA wants to increase streamflow by at least two cubic feet per second. The agency intends to meet that goal by bringing recycled water to the Coastside, so that Ocean Colony Golf Links will stop pumping from the ground beneath the creek.
The way CCWD sees it, if that happens, there will be ample leftover water.
CCWD could cut costs to its ratepayers by pumping more water from the creek and lessening its dependence on expensive Hetch Hetchy sources, Mickelsen said. The district reportedly charges some of the highest water rates in the state, in part because of the expense from pumping and treating Hetch Hetchy water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, which is driving the discussion, wants Ocean Colony Golf Links to decrease is dependence on groundwater wells.
That Ocean Colony well water is relatively inexpensive; however, there is one primary incentive for the golf course to curb pumping. Well water runs low during the summer and fall - a problem for golf course owners wanting to keep their greens verdant year-round.
Ocean Colony Golf Links pumps an estimated million gallons of water annually from the ground beneath lower Pilarcitos Creek.
Bruce Russell, CEO of Kenmark, a real estate firm which manages Ocean Colony, said the company is open to the idea of recycled water, pointing to the fact that many of the best golf courses in California rely on water reclamation.
"It's the right thing to do," Russell said. "The reclaimed water could be a more stable long-term water source for us, one that's more environmentally sound.
"The real issue there is whether the reclaimed water is good enough for us to use seven days a week on the golf course," Russell continued, alluding to water quality problems that reclaimed sources present.
Often, recycled water is high in salt and manganese, both of which are troublesome to grass, sometimes leaving it more yellow than green.
It is unlikely Ocean Colony would stop pumping from Pilarcitos altogether. Instead, the groundwater would be a secondary source to dilute the saltiness of recycled water and serve as emergency backup if the recycling plant were somehow impaired.
For Ocean Colony, a secure, reliable, safe source of water is enticing.
"Water is the lifeblood of a golf course," Russell said. "Obviously, we wouldn't have a business if we didn't have water."
Sewer Authority Mid-coastside is currently conducting a study to assess that water quality, and how much it would cost to filter it to suit the golf course. Sewer officials expect to have that report in hand within two months.
It may be possible for Ocean Colony to carry the recycled water to its golf courses using the existing well-water pipeline, a move that would likely cut the price of reclaimed water dramatically.
If a deal could be worked out with Ocean Colony and tertiary water could be used to supplement or replace those million gallons of well water every year, then comes the daunting task of restoring the crumpled banks of the creek, replenishing its natural habitat and making the creek accessible once again to steelhead trout.
With recycled water, the possibilities seem almost limitless, said Pat Rutten of NOAA Fisheries Service.
He gave a nod to the neighboring city of Pacifica, 13 miles and a mountain away, where recycled water was used to revitalize dried up Calera Creek.
A decade ago, the creek was little more than a dusty brown streambed.
Now its gushing with recycled water and home to thriving wetlands with 100 bird species and more than 10,000 endangered California red-legged frogs, said Scott Holmes, Pacifica's public works director.
Citing a number of scientific unknowns surrounding recycled water, Coastside officials are reticent to mimic Pacifica by putting the reused water directly into Pilarcitos Creek. But they do plan to use Pacifica as a template.
Copyright © 2005Half Moon Bay Review and Pescadero Pebble.