The City of Santa Cruz reverts back to basics in confronting water supply issues and community engagement
When it comes to solving and engaging the public on Santa Cruz’s water supply problems, it’s becoming increasingly clear to local leaders that the way to begin is not by spearheading solutions, such as transfers with other districts, new conservation tactics, or the highly contentious desalination plant, but rather to start with the basics: what are the city’s water sources, and what are the problems it faces?
Since top city officials recommended putting plans for desal on hold in August, following the community’s increasingly vocal opposition, there has been a re-thinking of how the city intends to communicate water issues to the community.
“When the council started talking about taking a pause on desal and placing everything on the table, part of that had to do with hearing from the community that they didn’t feel that they’d been included or engaged,” says Eileen Cross, communications specialist for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department.
Cross was hired in April to help with the city’s communication needs on the draft Environmental Impact Report preparation for desalination. The city plans to hire another communications specialist by the end of the year, which Assistant to the City Manager Scott Collins says is part of a citywide effort to improve community outreach.
As part of this new initiative, the city is hosting a series of events throughout the fall that are geared at providing people with a “foundation on water 101,” Cross says. This means addressing the questions of “what are our water sources; how do we treat it; how do we process it; [and] how do we get it from the treatment plant to your tap,” she says.
Recent events included a paddle tour of the San Lorenzo River—a first for the city, which Cross says was intended to get people invested and thinking more about one of Santa Cruz’s most important water sources, and last week’s tour of the Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant, where the city processes up to 16 million gallons of water per day. Local water historian Melanie Mayer will give a more complete tour of the city’s water system on Monday, Oct. 28, and, on Saturday, Nov. 2, former mayor and Natural Resources Secretary John Laird will be at Louden Nelson Community Center at 10 a.m. to talk about the state of water issues in California, more generally.
Looking forward, City Councilman Don Lane says communication with the public will be central to determining the solutions for water shortages.
On Tuesday, Oct. 8, the city council voted unanimously to support a set of guidelines Lane proposed for how to move forward with water decisions in a way that allows the public to more actively participate in the conversation.
“The community engagement has already changed the conversation,” he says, referring to the freeze on desal, “and it will continue to shape it.”
One facet of the guidelines is to create a blue ribbon committee comprising of a variety of stakeholders, including members of the business community, who will weigh in on the ongoing decision-making process. He says there will also need to be public meetings, workshops, and online voting opportunities.
Lane says it is key for the community first to establish common ground on what the problems are.
There is no argument about whether Santa Cruz faces challenges with water supply, but when one argument states, hypothetically, that the worst case scenario is a 20 percent water shortage, and the other states it is a 40 percent shortage, then the ways to solve those two problems are very different, he says.
“Obviously, if you have disagreement about what the problem is, you’ll never agree on the solution,” Lane says. “Over the next couple of years, we need to talk about what we do have and where are we short.”
Mike Rotkin, a former city councilmember and co-founder of the community activism group Sustainable Water Coalition, agrees, saying the city and desal proponents made the mistake of focusing on the technical questions surrounding desalination rather than the nature of Santa Cruz’s vulnerabilities to water shortages.
“The first step should have been to educate people about our water situation, not about the solutions to our water situation,” says Rotkin, who was originally opposed to the desal option but, after conducting research, became a supporter.
Periodically over the decades, Santa Cruz has been forced to confront its water shortages during extended dry spells—the worst of which was in ’76 and ’77, when the city dealt with a multiple-year drought. The city now gauges its worst-case scenario water-use reduction protocols on those years, says Toby Goddard, water conservation manager for the city’s water department.
“Every year is different,” he says. “There are years with lots of run-off, and years with very little.”
The City of Santa Cruz is currently in a Stage 1 water shortage, which can escalate up to a Stage 5 in a multi-year drought, he says.
One of the central difficulties in coming to a decision on how to solve water supply reliability issues, he says, is not having a range between the city’s current water demands and how it would change with population growth, or a range between the city’s water supply in a normal rainfall year and the water supply in a drought year.
“And therein lies the problem,” Goddard says. “You’ve got a lot of moving parts.”
Those two factors—current demand and growth, and normal rainy years versus drought years, both of which are in independent flux—need to come together into numbers that give the city a target goal.
According to the Water Department’s 2010 Urban Water Management Plan, the prospective estimate for 2015’s water supply in a normal rainy year is a supply of 4,010 million gallons per year (MGY), with a demand of 3,684, which ensures a surplus for the approximate 93,000 people the water department serves.
In the scenario of a 2015 multi-year drought, similar to ’76 and ’77—what Goddard calls “a very haunting dry year”—the supply total would be 2,640 with a demand total of 3,684, inverting that surplus into a shortfall. The city will face a major shortfall following two or more years of drought, at which point, Goddard says, it becomes a serious problem.
Those ranges are also driven up and down by potential water conservation forces and future policies that detract from the city’s available water sources, such as the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which the city has been in negotiation over with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for about a decade.
The HCP would establish a balance between Santa Cruz’s water supply and the amount of water required by endangered fish, which could subtract a significant portion of the city’s water source.
Lacking a timeframe for the HCP, Lane suggests the city implement its own deadline of one year to finalize its proposal.
“We just have to be done, because we can’t do the rest of the math until we have these numbers figured out,” Lane says. “The HCP is the biggest unknown of all.”
On top of establishing more informed numbers for the city’s needs in normal years versus drought years, Lane’s guidelines include a hold on allocating any more city funds for the desal EIR, but to remain in communication with the Soquel Creek Water District—its partner on the joint agency desal plan—about its needs, in order to address regional water problems and solutions.
Lane’s guidelines also call for studies and reports on the top three alternatives to desal in addition to conservation and water transfers. Possibilities include a large wastewater-recycling project, new wells at UC Santa Cruz, a new water storage facility in an abandoned quarry, and buying water from another source, such as a regional desalination project not owned or operated by the city.
Lane says that to start moving in the direction of solutions, the city needs to think about the issues as a math problem.
“There is a quantity of water that we have now, and there are quantities that will be lost in different ways,” whether it’s to the HCP proposal, a multi-year drought, or a population increase, he says. “We need to figure out what we do within the variability.”
As the range of the city’s need under the various circumstances becomes clearer, says Goddard, so will the solutions.
“Somehow, by listening to one another and going over and reviewing and comparing notes, and agreeing and disagreeing, we’ll get to some arithmetic that gives us a target,” Goddard says. “I doubt that we’ll ever have perfect information. In the real world we deal with imperfect information. But [water supply] is something that’s riveting the community right now, so we have to get the word out and sharpen our understanding.”