After Santa Cruz’s reset on plans for desalination, the Soquel Creek Water District assesses its options
The City of Santa Cruz has paused plans for desalination in the wake of community opposition, but the option could still be on table for the Soquel Creek Water District.
Looming threats of seawater intrusion in its aquifers have the district—which serves about 38,000 customers from Capitola to La Selva Beach—seeking a number of possible solutions to the problem of maintaining its water supply on a long-term level. There’s also the additional, ongoing threat of drought. These problems have prompted the district’s board of trustees to plan a series of public meetings over the next four months to explore its options.
“Time wise, we’re worried about seawater intrusion,” says Dr. Thomas LaHue, who sits on the district’s board of directors. “Seawater intrusion is happening very close by.”
Unlike the Santa Cruz Water Department, which relies largely on surface water, the Soquel Creek Water District relies entirely on groundwater from the Soquel-Aptos Groundwater Basin, which is over-pumped. When the groundwater basin dips below sea level—which it has in some of the district’s wells nearest to the coast—seawater can contaminate the well’s water supply. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, saltwater intrusion decreases freshwater storage in aquifers and, in extreme cases, can result in the abandonment of supply wells.
“It’s hard to predict exactly when and how fast it will occur,” LaHue says of seawater intrusion. “But it’s coming, imminently.”
To prevent seawater intrusion from continuing to move inland, the district must reduce overall groundwater pumping by 35 percent for at least 20 years.
The district had been counting on the joint desalination plant with the City of Santa Cruz in order to obtain supplemental water that would allow it to rest its over-drafted wells. The two entities spent a combined estimated $15 million in pursuing a desalination plant, including $1.6 million on a draft environmental impact report. However, city officials in Santa Cruz recently announced they were tabling a planned 2014 public vote on desal as a result of community opposition.
LaHue, a 10-year member of the board, says it’s essential that the district get its water levels to a protective status as soon as possible. The specific protective level varies at different parts of the district, but it refers to the level above sea level that the water supply must be at to avoid contamination by seawater. The board hopes to reduce groundwater pumping by 1,492-acre feet to reach this goal.
One possible solution being considered by the district is to pursue desalination without the cooperation of the City of Santa Cruz.
“You anticipate things will come up but now it’s taken this long [already] and Santa Cruz is at a reset,” says LaHue. “We can’t put all our eggs in that basket. [A solution] is not a luxury—it’s too important.”
The board recently heard from representatives of DeepWater Desal, a company that has proposed a regional multimillion-dollar desalination plant in Moss Landing that would also serve areas in Monterey and Salinas. DeepWater Desal’s plant would pull water from a deep-water canyon in the Monterey Bay and turn it into fresh water. The DeepWater plant would be much larger than the proposed desal plant for Santa Cruz—about 10 times bigger.
Representatives from the company say deepwater desalination is safer than other forms of desal.
Still, while the Soquel Creek Water District hasn’t experienced as much of a negative backlash over desalination as the City of Santa Cruz has, the prospect isn’t without opposition.
Rick Longinotti, a founder of Desal Alternatives, has questioned the district’s decision to continue to consider pursuing desalination. He’s criticized the district for what he says are “draconian” estimates of needed reductions, and has urged for stronger conservation efforts.
Last week, the district heard about surface water supply options, including water transfers with neighboring agencies.
John Ricker, the county’s water resources director, told the board he expects to complete a detailed report on the potential for water sharing by the end of the year.
In addition to possible water sharing with Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Valley water districts, Jerry Paul, a Santa Cruz engineer, has presented another possible plan. Paul’s proposed “Lochquifer” plan would divert river water into the Loch Lomond Reservoir and then use it to supply Soquel Creek for recharging its basin. Specifically, says Paul, the river water would help the overdrawn Purisma and Santa Margarita aquifers.
The board of directors will look at all of the potential ideas and then determine which merit a deeper look and more research. Once the ideas are narrowed down, they will go to a vote. There is no precise timeline for that at this point, however.
“We’re working as fast as we can on these other options,” says LaHue. “We need [enough information] to be able to explain to people what their life would look like in each scenario.”
Whichever avenues are chosen, LaHue says conservation will remain a key component.
“We’ve had all these conservation efforts and we will continue to do so,” LaHue says. “We asked for a voluntary reduction of 15 percent this summer and we reached half that. Every person has to make the change.”
Currently, the average water usage in the district is 70 gallons per person per day, says fellow director Dr. Don Hoernschemeyer. To meet the 35 percent reduction, that usage level would need to go down to 50 gallons per person per day.
Voluntary conservation is not a reliable option for achieving this reduction, the directors say.
“Some people will choose not to, others won’t have a choice,” says Hoernschemeyer. “We have to explore every possibility for supplemental water.”
Mandatory rationing is also a possibility directors will mull over, though its potential success seems shaky. The board would have to figure out how to enforce it and how to regulate it, and that could be difficult, says Hoernschemeyer. That’s a topic that’s scheduled to be discussed at a public meeting sometime in January. A February meeting will focus on recycled water options.
Starting next year, the district also plans to begin monthly billing in an effort to help customers have a better understanding of how much water they are using daily, according to the district’s general manager, Kim Adamson.
Despite the many concerns, the district’s board of directors comes at this current situation with an advantage over previous years. Thanks to work completed in the past two years, the board now has better data and measurements and detailed maps and charts assessing the district’s water supply status.
“In the past, the district didn’t really have good measurements of the state of the aquifers,” Hoernschemeyer says. “We’ve put in more monitoring wells—the analysis has been approved—and the district now has a much better, more accurate assessment of the levels. “
That information will be invaluable in the months to come as the district grapples with how to move forward in a way that allows it to meet its obligations to customers.
“My goal has always been [that] when I leave the district, I want to be able to feel like it’s going to be OK for another 50 years or so,” LaHue says.