A drop of good news about local water won’t be enough to offset a long drought
As California struggles through its worst drought ever and Gov. Jerry Brown has mandated 25 percent water cuts for everyone, the situation in Santa Cruz is better than you might expect.
The county’s main reservoir, Loch Lomond, had a water level of 577 feet, or 82 percent of capacity, as of last week—a decidedly positive outlook compared to the rest of the Golden State’s mostly parched reservoirs. (Lake McClure in Merced County stands at 8 percent of capacity, representing the worst, while the major California reservoir in the best shape is Bullards Bar in Yuba County at 61 percent.)
“It’s really good considering how little rainfall we’ve received,” says Eileen Cross, spokeswoman with the Santa Cruz Water Department. “[Reservoir capacity] is higher than it ever was last year.”
In late March of last year, Loch Lomond was at 67 percent.
The city water department took advantage of November and December’s heavy rains and pumped surface water from the San Lorenzo River into the loch (the Gaelic word for lake.)
Located northeast of Ben Lomond, Loch Lomond can hold 2.8 billion gallons.
Santa Cruz receives only about 5 percent of its water from ground wells. The San Lorenzo River supplies most of what eventually flow into sinks, showers and hoses.
In the winter, when the water flow is more robust, the river handles most of the city’s water needs, diverting the excess into the loch.
In the summer, when hardly any precipitation falls on Santa Cruz and most of the water in the San Lorenzo watershed is kept in the river to provide habitat conditions for fish, the city relies on Loch Lomond for its supply.
During the 2014-15 water year, which began in October, Santa Cruz received about 20 inches of rain, which is less than the average of 26 inches. However, the November/December deluge threw the city a life raft.
“We had about 150 percent of normal rainfall in November and December,” says Eileen Cross. “We pumped water from the river up to the reservoir for a record number of days.”
Last summer, the city implemented a “Stage 3” water rationing program that charged water customers exorbitant rates if they exceeded about 64 gallons per person per day, resulting in significant conservation. Users cut water use from the normal average of 10-12 million gallons a day to 6-7 million.
Meanwhile, the rest of California is increasingly imperiled by the dearth of rainfall for four consecutive years, and the strain is starting to show. Gov. Brown announced a $1 billion drought relief package on March 19, as water content in the Sierra snowpack was only 9 percent of normal.
NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti says the state has about one year left of its groundwater supply. The Lake Oroville Reservoir—the main water source for the California Water Project, which supplies a broad swath of the state with both drinking and agricultural water—stands at 50 percent.
“We cannot stress enough that water conservation will be critical in stretching our supplies to the maximum extent possible throughout the coming year,” says California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin.
However, the near-term success in Santa Cruz’s water conservation has not completely allayed concerns about the future of the city’s water.
“There are pros and cons of being shut off from the rest of California,” Cross says. “This year the rest of California is in worse shape than we are. But, also, they don’t rely on 100 percent of local rainfall.
“Look at San Jose,” says Cross. “They have a diverse portfolio of water supply, with groundwater sources, three reservoirs and the Silicon Valley Water Purification Center.”
But in Santa Cruz, if it does not rain there is no water. And other areas have bigger places to store water for more people.
“Our reservoir is very small, it doesn’t have five, six, seven or 12 years of storage like some of the other reservoirs in the state,” says City of Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard. “We don’t know what is going to happen with this drought. Some people are saying it’s going to be a mega-drought, so we need to be conservative.”
Santa Cruz has to think forward about solutions should the drought persist, says Cross.
“If we don’t get water in our reservoir we are screwed. So we have to figure out how to deal with (the infrastructure) we have,” she says.
That’s where the Santa Cruz Water Supply Advisory Committee comes in. A consortium of water experts, public officials, business owners, and interested citizens, the group began meeting in April 2014 to address issues relating to water supply and reliability problems facing the city.
After meeting for nearly a year to work out the parameters and criteria of how to analyze the problem and formulate potential solutions, the committee finally assessed where the rubber meets the road on Friday, March 20.
“That meeting was the first exercise with future scenarios, so it represented the sort of apotheosis of our process,” says committee member Doug Engfer. “I think it was a goosebumps moment for all of us.”
Specifically, Engfer and his committee were given a scenario of an eight-year prolonged drought that resulted in a 1.3-billion-gallon-a-year shortage. Engfer’s group then had to come up with plausible solutions to the water gap.
They nixed consideration of a desalination plant, which was turned down by voters two years ago, and focused instead on stringent conservation. They also considered building more pumps and pipes to divert more water from the San Lorenzo River.
Rick Longinotti, who started the organization Desal Alternatives to oppose a desalination plant, says he harbors no regrets about killing the proposal, despite the persistence of the drought.
“There are ways to deal with the drought that don’t require high technology, high energy and are very costly,” Longinotti says. “I think right now we are focusing on ways to reduce demand and take advantage of the winter flows in the San Lorenzo.”
But there is a degree of uncertainty in this scenario, Engfer cautions. If the drought worsens as a result of climate change, the demand for water in Santa Cruz could become untenable.
The only way to guarantee a steady supply of water outside of a desalination plant is to use recycled water, says Engfer, who identifies two possible scenarios for doing so.
“The two scenarios involve taking wastewater and sewer effluent and processing it until it’s pure and then shipping it to the North Coast so they can use it for irrigation,” Engfer says. “The second scenario is we could store it in an aquifer and use it for drinking.”
Treating wastewater to render it potable is something that’s done across the world, but regulations in California prohibit treating effluent for drinking. However, there are signs that the California legislature will either alter or eliminate such regulations as state officials continue to grasp for drought solutions.
“It’s done in many places,” Engfer says, of treating effluent. “But conceptually it’s really challenging, it’s a whole new concept and it’s a known unknown in terms of the health impacts of that type of water.”
It would also take years to build the plants, meaning any near-term drought problem will have to be solved by other means.
“As I look at our [alternative solutions] and what we have to do to solve an eight-year drought, we start to look at doing things that, between the yuck factor and the cost, freak us out,” says David Baskin, chairperson of the Santa Cruz Water Commission and member of the advisory committee.
The committee considered other solutions such as storing water in defunct quarries; storing excess water in Scotts Valley and Soquel; even more aggressive water rationing; making developers pay for retrofitting water-smart components and using Ranney collectors, which are horizontal wells near rivers.
The Water Supply Advisory Committee will continue to weigh and analyze iterations of different scenarios and possible solutions throughout the summer, before settling on a recommendation for the Santa Cruz City Council, due in October.
PHOTO: Doug Engfer, a member of the Santa Cruz Water Supply Advisory Committee, at Santa Cruz’s Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant. CHIP SCHEUER