By Amanda Covarrubias

They're the trees that gave this quaint Central Coast village its nickname: Cambria Pines by the Sea.

But the towering Monterey pines _ one of only three such native forests in the United States _ are being ravaged by the drought. Most are brown and brittle. Weakened by lack of water, some have toppled. Others were cut down to prevent them from falling on cars and houses.

"The town lost 25 percent of its trees last year, and half of those that are standing are brown and dead," said Rick Hawley, a founder of the preservation group Greenspace who waters some of the younger, more vulnerable trees.

The trees are a symbol of the drought's effect on the relatively isolated Central Coast, which _ despite its proximity to the world's largest body of water _ is particularly vulnerable to shortages because it relies on an unstable networks of creeks, lakes and State Water Project allocations.

As the three-year drought drags on, cities and towns on the Central Coast are looking for alternatives: Santa Barbara may dust off its dormant desalination plant, and San Luis Obispo County wants to connect two pipelines to deliver emergency water to Morro Bay and state and county agencies along Highway 1.

In Cambria, the water shortage is particularly acute because its 6,000 residents get all of their supply from two shrinking local creeks. To prevent the creeks from going dry, the Cambria Community Services District is building a controversial treatment plant to essentially make the town's water go further.

Over the past year, Cambria embarked on a civic effort to reduce water consumption, and it succeeded: Water use dropped 40 percent.

Yet that was not enough for the unincorporated community six miles south of Hearst Castle. The Community Services District declared an extreme water shortage in January and soon secured a fast-tracked county permit to build the water treatment plant along one of two creeks that feed its aquifer.

"We were faced with well levels dropping precipitously, and we needed to take action," said Jim Bahringer, president of the district's board of directors.

But critics say the $9.13 million water treatment plant will damage the delicate ecosystem, particularly San Simeon Creek lagoon. They say there never really was a drought emergency because of successful conservation measures, and some liken the plan to a land grab to spur future growth.

"They're trying to turn this into Carmel," resident Tina Dickason said recently as she photographed mallards floating in the marshy lagoon. "If we wanted to live in Carmel, we would have moved there."

Water rates will increase "significantly" to cover construction and operating costs, Bahringer said, with the amount depending on usage and whether the customer is a home or business. The district also has applied for state drought relief grants to help cover the cost.

The treatment plant being built upstream from the lagoon would replenish the town's wells in drought years by treating brackish water _ a combination of groundwater, percolated wastewater treatment plant effluent and a mix of fresh water and salt water _ and eventually returning it to the aquifer.

Bahringer and other proponents, including a new group called Cambrians for Water, bristle at suggestions the project is a front to enable development.

"Our opponents have always used water as a weapon to stop growth," said Greg Hunter, a group founder. "But the problem is they've also stopped us from developing a reliable and sustainable water source that will take our residents and businesses through drought periods."

Opponents said they would prefer the district build a reservoir to bank water during rainy years. And they say they know the perfect site: a canyon near San Simeon Creek on land that rancher Clyde Warren has said he would sell to the district.

For now, many Cambrians are taking advantage of another offer made by Warren: He sells them nonpotable water for three cents a gallon to keep their gardens from withering.

Many residents have bought backyard tanks to water their yards and gardens, and water trucks large and small are a common sight.

"People basically let their gardens die or they bring in their own water," said Catherine Ryan Hyde, a writer who has lived in Cambria for 30 years. She recently installed a 300-gallon tank in her yard to sustain hers, especially a cherished dwarf lemon tree, a birthday gift from her mother before her death.

"Even if I have to buy quart bottles of drinking water, I'm going to hold on to it," she said of the tree.

Beyond its yards and gardens, Cambria's famed Monterey pines also are at risk. Experts say the drought could kill as many as 40 percent of them. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is planning to survey the extent of the devastation, said Alan Peters, a unit forester for the agency in San Luis Obispo County.

"There's been a dramatic increase in dead, orange trees," Peters said. "You can see it. They're not going to come back, even if it poured rain." Hawley of Greenspace opposes the plant and says offers by ranchers to help Cambria through the drought, or even leasing a mobile desalination plant, are preferable alternatives.

"By the way, we're not going to run out of water," Hawley said of warnings by the community services board that Cambria could run dry by year's end. "That's a scare tactic."

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times