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Cambria, CA Overcomes Drought-Related Water Supply Shortage With Desalination Plant

Cambria, CA, USA

At a Glance

Located in drought-prone California, the town of Cambria lacked access to a regional water supply and was insufficiently equipped to meet demand. Amidst a state of emergency due to drought, a desalination plant was built, providing more than 81 million gallons of potable water per year.

Problem Addressed

Situated on the Pacific Ocean, Cambria, a village in California, has a population of around 6,000. The village is served by the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD), and due to lack of access to a regional water supply, has relied upon water conservation along with groundwater from local stream aquifers to meet the demand for water.

Amid growing concerns about its access to water, CCSD obtained a Federal Water Resources Development grant from the US Army Corps of Engineers to develop a reliable water supply project. As part of the grant, preliminary environmental analyses were completed as well as a supply alternative study of 28 water supply alternatives. The US Army Corps of Engineers finalized a memorandum of water supply alternatives for Cambria in November of 2013. The report analyzed 28 alternative water supply options and identified a brackish water supply system as being the most technically feasible. Brackish water contains dissolved solids that can make the water salty, although not to the level of seawater, and be sourced from creeks, estuaries or other areas where fresh and saltwater meet. The same year, 2013, was the driest in California since 1895, and the California Department of Public Health urged public water providers to develop supply contingency plans, such as using brackish, non-potable water.

The Town of Cambria used/is using a desalination water treatment plant to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

With drought conditions intensifying, The CCSD developed a more limited version of the brackish water supply identified in the report. In 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency due to the drought and suspended environmental review procedures. With this newest development, San Luis Obispo County issued an emergency coastal development permit allowing the project to proceed but requiring completion in only 6 months. Successfully meeting the deadline, the Sustainable Water Facility (SWF) was completed in 2014. The site used for the SWF, while adjacent to environmentally sensitive areas, was ideal for the desalination and reuse of brackish water because the area was already used by CCSD for wastewater disposal.

The process itself runs a mix of freshwater, estuary water, and highly treated sewage wastewater through three stages of osmosis, eventually injecting treated water into the San Simeon and Santa Rosa Creek aquifers to supply the community with additional potable water. This project makes Cambria one of the first communities in California to recycle sewage wastewater into an eventual drinking-water source. When operating at full capacity, the desalination plant can provide 250 acre-feet of freshwater a year - more than 81 million gallons or about a third of the town’s total water demand from water previously undrinkable.

While the project was successfully implemented, it faced an additional hurdle when the State of Emergency was downgraded, and the facility’s continued operation became contingent on successfully navigating the once-bypassed environmental review to receive a Regular Coastal Development Permit.


  1. CCSD had the plant operational within 6 months after a state of emergency was declared
  2. The town was able to provide residents with 81 million gallons of potable water that was previously undrinkable
  3. Operating at full capacity, the plant can provide 33% of the town’s demand for water
  4. Cambria is one of the first communities in California to recycle sewage wastewater into a source of drinking water
  5. Rather than attempting temporary solutions of piping water from other communities, Cambria took an innovative approach that enabled a sustainable water supply

Something Unique

The Cambria Sustainable Water Facility was nominated by Global Water Intelligence for the 2015 Global Water Awards “Desalination Plant of the Year”

Who Should Consider?

Cities or towns in areas prone to drought, or due to their remote location, lack access to a regional water supply.

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