Elections have a way of answering questions about a community’s priorities—or at least they’re bound to be interpreted that way.
The Soquel Creek Water Board of Directors race last month would appear to be a perfect example. A slate of candidates, concerned about the board’s direction, campaigned on the impacts that intense conservation would have on the local economy. The challengers were defeated by incumbents Bruce Jaffe and Rick Meyer, who were greatly outspent by those same pro-business candidates. Retired biological chemist Carla Christensen took the third seat.
“The public has spoken,” Jaffe says. “They want to have a science-based policy for water. And they want any additional water supply project that we do to be environmentally sound.”
But the water board race opened up questions, too. For starters: who exactly is Carla Christensen?
The 20-year resident of the district once worked as a biological chemist, researching environmental causes of cancer. She’s married to Tom Mader, a longtime Capitola environmental activist, and she threw her hat into the ring this past summer, not expecting to win a seat. She didn’t even stick around town to hear the election results.
“I did leave town afterward, because I did not want to listen to people say, ‘Oh, you tried, but too bad,’” Christensen says, sitting in her living room, which looks out over the ocean.
Christensen had just three contributors to her campaign—two of them being herself and her husband—in a race where county supervisors, state legislators, the Desal Alternatives group, and the Aptos Chamber of Commerce all threw in endorsements. Christensen did not secure any such backing. She also couldn’t make it to the race’s biggest forum, which was held in the Capitola City Council Chambers.
But come election day, under her name read the words, “retired environmental scientist” on the ballot. In a small election, simple words like those can make a big difference.
“That’s a good ballot title,” says Michael Terris, a political consultant based in San Francisco. “Ballot title does make a significant difference, particularly for a race with less information about the candidates. People look at that information.” Terris adds that the candidate statements are also important in small elections like these.
Christensen says that many people told her after the election that they voted for her based on her ballot statement, which was quick and to the point. It warned about the threat of aquifer overdraft and saltwater intrusion if users did not continue improving their conservation rates. It stressed that the board must work with customers outside the district who draw on the same basin.
She says that being retired gave her plenty of time to talk to neighbors in the district of about 50,000 households, and that she talked to at least 500 voters. Christensen was the first woman ever elected to the board, and some voters have since told her that they supported her at least partly for that reason.
But Christensen concedes that some voters simply may not be very informed or fully understand what they’re voting for. A recent phone survey by the district, which depends on groundwater, found that about half of all water users thought their water came, at least partly, from the local rivers and streams, which it doesn’t. About one in five thought some of their water came from the Sierras. (“If it came from the Sierras, it would taste a lot better,” Christensen says with a laugh.) And about one in 10 customers surveyed thought their water came from a desalination plant. There isn’t a desal plant within 100 miles.
Christensen wants to continue the district’s focus on reducing water usage through its Conservation Plus program. She also says the district will need some sort of supplemental supply to reduce the drain on the Purisima Aquifer. That could come in the form of tertiary, or recycled, water. That water could be used to recharge the aquifer, a possibility the board is currently pursuing. Christensen says the district could also look into scalping, a similar process using storm water that could be used to rest wells.
Christensen admits she has more to learn. She wonders if the district can increase rebates to its most prudent customers, and make up the difference by cutting overhead costs in the district. She is sympathetic to businesses that feel the crunch of conserving and says that restaurants can only cut back on so much water.
From her background in chemistry, Christensen is familiar with the various metals and forms of chromium that show up in water. (This past summer, the district tackled elevated levels of chromium 6, which has been linked to health problems.) She compares her background to that of Soquel Water Board member Don Hoernschmeyer, a research chemist who announced his retirement from the board before the election, creating the vacancy for a newcomer.
“I’m used to looking at a lot of data, a huge amount of data,” Christensen says. “That’s what I did.”
Jaffe, a strong supporter of strict conservation, has talked to Christensen only a few times, but he’s excited for the perspective she might bring to the district.
“I look forward to working with her on the board,” Jaffee says. “I admire her environmental credentials, and I think her heart’s in the right place in protecting the water. … I imagine we’ll vote the same way on some issues, and differently on others. That’s healthy. It’s good to have fresh blood, new opinions, a fresh pair of eyes on the problem.”
PHOTO: Carla Christensen hopes to bring new life to the Soquel Creek Water Board of Directors. CHIP SCHEUER