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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM: Morro Bay

Coastal Town's Options for Drinking Water Are Drying Up


MORRO BAY — Visitors come to this Central Coast hamlet to watch the seals in the harbor and gaze on a 576-foot-tall igneous outcrop called Morro Rock.

But this fall, people in town are not talking about hotel vacancy rates. The conversations along the beach are about going dry. And they don't mean emptying the wine cellar at Windows on the Water.

Because of a series of mistakes and coincidences, this Central Coast tourist hamlet is facing a serious water shortage. A chemical compound is threatening the city's wells. Preparing for the worst, the city council last week declared an emergency, allowing officials to require water conservation.

"You can do without gas or electricity, but you can't do without water," said Mayor Rodger Anderson.

The problem began a year ago, when the city found that a chemical compound known as MTBE had gotten into the sewage plant through a cracked line. MTBE is a gasoline additive designed to curb air pollution, but which has shown a propensity to invade ground water supplies around the nation. Its health effects are still being debated, but Gov. Gray Davis has banned its use after 2002.

After months of testing, the city believed it had found the source of the contamination: a local Shell gas station.

"Everything points to them," said Anderson, who owns the Galley Restaurant downtown. He said he's not sure whether the contamination is from a leak in storage tanks or a spill. He doesn't much care. Anderson is a popular figure in town and is used to receiving calls about everything from barking dogs to illegally parked cars. But he's weary of this issue and wants it cleaned up.

So far, he said, corporate officials connected with the station have not accepted responsibility. He accuses them of adopting a "rope-a-dope" strategy of avoidance and said the case has been referred to the district attorney for prosecution. The city also has hired attorney Barry Groveman to represent its interests. Groveman is coauthor of Proposition 65, which requires warning labels on products that contain cancer-causing agents or substances that damage the reproductive system.

"One station can threaten an entire city's water supply," said Groveman.

A representative of Equilon Enterprises, which handles Shell's gas station operations, denied dodging the city. "Whatever our responsibility is determined to be, we will live up to it," said Cameron Smyth.

What makes the situation especially troublesome is a series of unlikely coincidences and environmental mandates that limit the city's ability to bail itself out of its watery conundrum. Morro Bay usually gets its drinking water from the State Water Project, but the project informed the city that it would suspend deliveries this winter to do routine maintenance on pumping equipment. The city had planned to pump water from its Morro Valley well field to make up for the loss, but the MTBE pollution is close by and the city fears that drawing down the aquifer would spread the pollution.

The city has a second well field at Chorro Creek, but is blocked from pumping water there during dry periods to preserve habitat for local animals. That basically leaves Morro Bay high and dry.

"We are seriously in need of alternate water supplies," said City Manager Bob Hendrix. Morro Bay has asked oil officials for help finding a substitute water supply, but that effort has not yet produced a solution.

Despite the anxiety of city officials, the problem has not raised an alarm around the tourist hamlet. The chamber of commerce says it is not receiving anxious calls from merchants or residents.

Smyth said Equilon has offered a correction plan. He declined to describe it, but Hendrix said it would require pumping out contaminated water and filtering it through carbon before re-injecting the water into the ground.

City officials went to Sacramento this week to ask permission to pump the creek well field, despite the rules. Hendrix said the state is sympathetic, but has not yet given the go-ahead.

If that fails, "I don't know where else we'll go," he said.

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