Is The NCSD Misleading The Public About Nipomo Water?

One wonders, after reading the most recent public “press release” under Ms. Whitlow’s name, apparently released with the authority and blessing of the NCSD Board.  Ms. Whitlow is listed on the NCSD website as a Conservation and Public Outreach Specialist, and is apparently a full time, salaried employee of the NCSD.  Why the NCSD actually needs such a person, at rate payer expense, is the subject of an entirely different post.

The “press release in question, was posted on the Nipomo Community e-group on 1/27/07.  I repost it here in its entirety:

For Immediate Release – 01/27/2008

Celeste Whitlow, Conservation/Public Outreach Specialist, Nipomo
Community Services District
Email: cwhitlow@…
Phone: 805-929-1133 ext. 209


The October 2007 groundwater storage level of the Nipomo Mesa Management Area aquifer is 66,000 acre-feet. The reading in Spring 2007 was 93,000 acre-feet. The new reading represents a 27,000-acre-feet drop since April 2007.

The measurements and analyses of data were performed by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which also performed the Spring groundwater study.

It is estimated that a groundwater storage level below 60,000 acre- feet would risk saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. If saltwater entered the aquifer, the areas that held saltwater would never again be able to store potable water.

This is the first Fall groundwater storage reading obtained. Whether this large drop is normal or abnormal is unknown. As Spring and Fall readings are obtained in future years, more will be known about the relevance of the Spring versus Fall readings.

More is being learned about the Nipomo groundwater storage area, and this Fall reading is a healthy evolution of what we can learn about the aquifer.

In response to that posted “press release”, Jesse Hill responded to the Community egroup with this:

Please provide any back up for this statement.  Not one hydrologist who testified at trial ever presented any such analysis including SAIC.  In fact, the testimony was that as the water levels dropped less water flowed to the ocean.  Do you have any evidence of salt water intrusion in any of the coastal monitoring wells to back up this claim from 1950 to the present.  Thanks.  JH

I also posted my thoughts to the egroup:

Dear Ms. Whitlow:

Like Jesse, I am quite curious about parts of your “press release.”

Who specifically has estimated that groundwater storage below 60,000 acre feet risks saltwater intrusion into the aquifer?  Can you please provide the names of these individuals, their organization, and the empirical data upon which they rely?

If, in fact this was a press release to inform the community, why weren’t these individuals or organizations named in your press release?  You took the time and trouble to specifically identify SAIC in your “press release” but not a word about those who are interpreting this data.  Why?

I’m certain you are aware of the following facts, which can be found here :

On May 23, 2007, Brad Newton, P.G. SAIC, the engineering experts hired by our local NCSD board of directors to keep them apprised on the overall health of the Nipomo aquifer presented a report to the NCSD board. His complete report is located here on the NCSD website. His conclusion and presentation to the NCSD board as reflected in the NCSD minutes for that meeting reflect:



Dr. Brad Newton of SAIC made a presentation of 2007 Groundwater Storage Update and Report on Coastal Monitoring Well Water Quality Results With testing of sentinel wells along the coast line, it was determined that there is no evidence of seawater intrusion. There has been little or no change in the water quality since 1975.

If, as you suggest the basin is now in danger of overdraft, why didn’t SAIC’s expert comment on that fact last May?  Last May, Doctor Newton specifically stated that there is no evidence of seawater intrusion ; yet, your “press release” based on the interpretation of unnamed sources is claiming the basin is now in danger of seawater intrusion.  How can this be?

You further write in your “press release”

This is the first Fall groundwater storage reading obtained. Whether this large drop is normal or abnormal is unknown.

If, in fact this is the first fall groundwater storage reading, how do you know this is a large drop?  The second sentence specifically states whether such a drop is normal or not, is unknown.  These two sentences seem contradictory?

May I inquire who wrote this press release?  Was it approved by the Board of Directors?  The clear implication is that Nipomo’s aquifer is now threatened by seawater intrusion.  Please clarify now to the community, and to the media, which is undoubtedly going to grab on to an official NCSD “press release” containing a warning that we are about to experience seawater intrusion.

I look forward to your reply.


Guy Murray

In response, Jim Harrison, a Director and currently the Vice President of the NCSD posted his response to the group:


I also am curious about parts of this release. I had asked the specific question of Staff what is the difference in the Water in Storage for the Fall and Spring of 2006 and 2007. I have not as of this time received the answer it is my belief that no date exist to determine if this reduction from the Spring to the Fall is abnormal or not if there is data I have not seen it.

I have also not seen any data to indicate that storage below the 60,000 acre feet would cause sea water intrusion, what I have seen is that the level of the storage has been below the 60,000 acre feet level two times in the last 35 years and as we know no sea water has gotten in.  That said I do believe that we need to determine what the minimum level of water in storage would  cause this problem, I do not know how this can be done without destroying this water source so we need to error on the high side because none of us want salt water intrusion into the aquifer.

Jim Harrison

I responded to Jim’s post, thanking him for his comments.  This post is a further response to Jim, highlighting my continuing concerns about Ms. Whitlow’s “press release” and its subsequently being further quoted in the Santa Maria Times.  On Friday, 1/18/08, the Santa MariaTimes, picked up the NCSD’s “press release” and ran the following story, on the front page:

Nipomo basin groundwater takes sizable drop

By Mike Hodgson/Associate Editor

Water in the Nipomo groundwater basin dropped 27 percent from April to October last year, from 93,000 acre-feet to 66,000 acre-feet, according to figures released Thursday by the Nipomo Community Services District.

While the drop surprised district officials, no one is sure if the decrease is relatively normal or an aberration.

However, the October level is just 6,000 acre-feet above the level many experts believe would result in saltwater intrusion from the ocean.

That intrusion could have devastating effects on the aquifer, because areas invaded by saltwater could no longer be used to store potable water, said Bruce Buel, NCSD general manager.

“It just was mind-boggling,” Buel said of the storage analysis conducted by Science Applications International Corp., headquartered in San Diego. “We didn’t expect half of that, much less nearly 30,000 acre-feet.”

This marks the first time the district has taken storage level measurements in October and compared them to measurements taken in April.

“We’re trying to understand the storage of the basin,” Buel said, noting the district has been measuring water levels in the groundwater basin since 1975.

“So we have a 32-year record of water level measurements. This is literally the first time we’ve calculated water storage in the fall.

“We were quite surprised,” he said. “We believed and expected water in storage would decrease in the six-month interval, but we were surprised it decreased as much as it did.”

San Luis Obispo County records the water levels in 52 wells, most of them private and inactive, so they are not pumping water at the time the measurements are taken, which could affect the readings.

To compute the storage in the groundwater basin, SAIC feeds those levels into a computer that creates an isohytal, or contour, map of the water levels in the aquifer.

Using those figures in a formula including sea level and bedrock level, analysts can compute the number of acre-feet stored in the basin, Buel said.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons – enough to cover a football field one foot deep – and is the amount of water generally needed to supply the annual needs of four to 10 people in an urban environment.

With more water now being drawn out of the Nipomo aquifer – a subregion of the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin that stretches from Santa Maria to the Five Cities area – NCSD officials are worried.

Not only is the community exceeding its supply of water for current uses, but not enough water is available for full build-out of the community. And saltwater intrusion also could mean less storage space for potable water, further reducing future supplies.

To deal with the looming water shortage, NCSD is forging ahead on a plan to buy surplus State Water from the city of Santa Maria for short-term needs, and is planning to build a desalination plant for long-term needs.

At the same time, the district is hammering out emergency water-shortage regulations that would trigger voluntary conservation measures at Stage 1.

Increasingly stringent mandatory measures – enforced by rate surcharges, fines and even jail time – would apply to stages 2 through 4.

A storage level of 70,000 acre-feet or less would trigger Stage 2 conservation measures, but Buel said that even if the regulations were in place, the 66,000 acre-feet recorded in October would not initiate a Stage 2 warning.

Instead, any decision on the level of severity would be made after the April figures are computed, usually in May. That’s because groundwater levels are expected to be higher in spring and lower in fall.

“It wouldn’t make sense to impose water conservation restrictions in October because we would expect levels to be lower,” Buel said. “This midpoint (measurement) is sort of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ sort of deal.”

He added, “If we have a barn-burner of a winter with lots of rain, levels could be back up by spring.”

A meeting to explain the proposed emergency water shortage regulations and obtain public feedback is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Nipomo High School on North Thompson Road.

If, as expected, the regulations are approved by NCSD directors as early as April, they would become immediately effective, Buel said.

If the April groundwater measurements are received by May 1 and show a deficiency, the district could determine the water shortage stage May 14, and conservation measures could kick in as early as May 18, he said.

The Santa Maria Times article is even more troubling.  The “press release” does not even attribute to experts, the conclusion that dropping below 60,000 acre feet of water risks seawater intrusion.  Rather, it just assumes as fact that conclusion without attributing it to any source at all:

It is estimated that a groundwater storage level below 60,000 acre- feet would risk saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. If saltwater entered the aquifer, the areas that held saltwater would never again be able to store potable water.

And, it’s only an “estimated” danger.  No mention of experts, or any other source for this conclusion.  Yet, by the time the Santa Maria Times’ editors printed the story, this “factual” conclusion was attributed to “many” yet unidentified and undisclosed experts:

However, the October level is just 6,000 acre-feet above the level many experts believe would result in saltwater intrusion from the ocean.

What?  How on earth, in one day did this never before seen conclusion go from just estimated, to being supported by “many experts?”  The Times doesn’t bother no name even one of these experts?  With whom did the Times reporter speak?  Did he actually speak to “many experts” to actually confirm such a conclusion?  Not even Ms. Whitlow’s press release made the bold, and so far unsupported assertion, that many experts believe that falling below 60,000 acre feet risks seawater intrusion.

The Times story was quite predictable, given the NCSD “press release.”  It appears to have been calculated to generate such headlines.  Not only did it succeed in generating the headlines, it took the assumptions several steps further.

I’m not a water expert, and don’t pretend to be.  I rely on the conclusions of water experts, which I assume to be supported by appropriate foundational data.  I have already posted here, and here, what appear to be completely opposition conclusions, based on empirical data that well accepted by the leading hydrology experts in California.

As Director Jim Harrison pointed out in his reply, there have apparently been at least two occasions since the NCSD has been keeping records that the water storage level has in fact dipped below the 60,000 acre foot level.  Yet, there has been no sea water intrusion.  Why has this fact not been pointed out by the NCSD in their “press release?”   To what levels did the water levels actually drop?  What conclusions can we draw from these facts?  Do they contradict or support what the NCSD released, and the Santa Maria Times enhanced?

Was the NCSD’s “press release” accurate?  Or, has Ms. Whitlow, the voice of the NCSD mislead the public?  Was it reponsible journalism for the Santa Maria Times to hype the so called facts in that “press release” in its article?  I don’ t know the answers to these questions.  I would like the NCSD to provide further clarification on the factual basis for its press release, and I invite its representative to do so.

If there are facts to support the NCSD’s most recent “press release” then the public should know of them.  We are entitled to know the identity and qualifications of the individuals or “experts” upon which  the NCSD has relied to support this “press release.”  If the factual interpretations are accurate, then one has to wonder, why the NCSD didn’t present these experts in the Santa Maria water litigation?  Are they different experts than those the NCSD did retain and pay to testify at trial?  Are they they same experts, who have simply changed their opinions?  We, as the general public are entitled to know these and other answers.

I eagerly await any replies from the NCSD’s representatives.

4 thoughts on “Is The NCSD Misleading The Public About Nipomo Water?

  1. Mr. Murray,

    We, at Blacklake, were amazed to see the article in the Adobe Press yesterday. I have copied our response to the reporter in hopes that he would do a better job in the future.


    —– e-mail to Mr. Hodgson ——

    Mr. Hodgson,

    I was surprised to see your article today in the Adobe Press because it presents a biased view of our Nipomo Mesa groundwater problem.  All of the alarmist statements regarding the groundwater supply is based on a draft report by one consultant of NCSD.  As a reporter, I am surprised that you rely on unsubstantiated conclusions from a single source.  The report on which the conclusions are based has not undergone any peer review and it does not agree with data and conclusions in more comprehensive DWR and SLO County Water studies.  At the very least, SLO County and Santa Barbara counties should agree with the data in this report, as it may affect actions throughout the Santa Maria Valley Basin.

    If NCSD felt the problem was so serious when they analyzed the measurements in October, why did they wait until January 20 (or thereabouts) to notify the press, which coincidentally is 5 days before a public workshop on their proposed emergency rationing plan?

    [Ref. “Nipomo Mesa Groundwater Resource Capacity Study, San Luis Obispo County, California”, S.S. Papadopulos & Associates, San Francisco, CA, March 2004 (available online at
    [Ref. “Water Resources of the Arroyo Grande – Nipomo Mesa, 2002”, Department of Water Resources, Southern District, 2002 (available online at

    The NCSD customers, both here at Blacklake and in the other areas of Nipomo, are becoming highly critical of the one-way flow of information from NCSD.  As a result, we try to do our homework to verify what is made public before it causes problems.  This water conservation issue is certainly one that will incense the community.  I have already contacted NCSD regarding concerns about the basis for the trigger points identified in the SAIC draft report.  They have not responded yet.

    I have preformed a statistical analysis of the data in the SAIC report and found that their own data shows a nice normal distribution (bell-shaped curve) over a 25-year period.  The mean (average value) and standard deviation show that any data between 52,000 and 122,500 AF can be expected (statistically).  This means that the trigger points and the “scare” values identified in the SAIC report and in your article are unimportant (statistically).  

    I agree that all the water users on the Nipomo Mesa need to conserve water and be aware of water conditions, but doomsday predictions and scare tactics, along with draconian ordinances, are not the way to elicit widespread public support. As we all know, “WMD reporting” can lead to undesirable results.

    If others in the community are as upset as those of us who have read and studied the NCSD proposal, then the meeting next Wednesday should be quite a show.  I hope you will attend and gather more information. It’s too bad your paper cannot issue a retraction or provide alternate viewpoints before next Wednesday’s meeting.

    Bill Petrick
    Chairperson, Blacklake Management Association NCSD Committee

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for your comment and letter. I’m going to post it to the Community egroup as well. You raise some good points. As of today, 1/29/08 I have heard nothing from Ms. Whitlow in response to my questions about their press release. Her silence is deafening.

    I completely agree, and probably most do as well, that we should all make a concerted effort in Nipomo to conserve water. But, I take an extremely dim view of my government misleading the public. That is true on the federal when they lie us into war, and it is equally true on the local water board level when people like Ms. Whitlow make unsupportable statements meant to scare people into achieving certain governmental ends.

  3. Pingback: Nipomo Deserves A Hotel « Nipomo News

  4. Pingback: San Luis Obispo Area - California (CA) - Page 2 - City-Data Forum

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