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The Water Squad

news1waterCommittee looks for innovative water solutions that could make Santa Cruz a model for other communities

When Sue Holt heard in 2013 that a new Santa Cruz city water committee was in need of members, she wanted in.

The retired Cabrillo College instructor felt she could bring a unique perspective to the city’s Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC), which aims to generate fresh ideas on solving water shortage problems in a transparent and public-oriented way. One of the first steps to doing that is getting a better grip on what the problems actually are.

One of the big issues facing the city, says Holt, is a lack of storage for all the rain that comes during the winter, when people use less water.

“We’re really dependent on surface water, and don’t have much in the way of storage,” says Holt. “We’ve got Loch Lomond and that’s it. Our water comes when we don’t need it, and it doesn’t come when we do need it—in the summer.”

Holt is one of 14 locals chosen by Santa Cruz city councilmembers for the WSAC—a group of county residents with a wide range of viewpoints, united by one purpose: finding the most viable solutions to Santa Cruz’s water supply woes. If successful, the committee could usher in a new era of how the community thinks about its water, and it is already holding discussions that transcend the controversial plans for a desalination plant that was put on indefinite hold in 2012.

Holt, who represents the unincorporated residents of the Santa Cruz Water District, taught environmental economics and statistics at Cabrillo for almost three decades, with a focus on natural resource protection. She has since served as a consultant on residential water use for the Soquel Creek Water District.

As part of the committee, Holt developed a newfound appreciation for Santa Cruz customers and for water director Rosemary Menard, who has praised Santa Cruz’s conservation through the drier summer months, when people normally use much more water.

“[Menard] said that we turned summer into winter,” says Holt. “I thought that this was remarkable because it’s true. In a summer day, we would normally use around 10 million gallons a day, and this summer we were using under seven-and-a-half gallons a day. Right now it’s about 6.3 million gallons a day.”

The committee met for the first time last April, and was initially given a year to compose a set of recommendations for the Santa Cruz City Council, but after just eight months of research and deliberation, WSAC members now fully understand the staggering complexities surrounding the issue. Some members tell GT they plan to seek an extension from the City Council in order to make the best recommendations they can.

The plurality of those recommendations is important. And the process of making smart choices about the future of a town’s water security may resemble the process of making good financial ones. Retired lawyer David Baskin, who represents the Santa Cruz Water Commission on the committee, says that a diverse portfolio of options may be the ultimate fix to the water department’s supply gap.

“It’s the notion of a water portfolio, where you have a diversity of supply sources—and hopefully some redundancy in your supply sources—so that as various conditions change, you can draw on different parts of the portfolio, and over time it enables you to have a consistency and reliability of supply, and a more sufficient supply,” Baskin says. “Right now, our portfolio is not as reliable and as sufficient as we would like it to be, so what do we add to our portfolio to give us more water?”

That’s the question that WSAC members are eager to answer. David Stearns, who also represents the Water Commission on the committee, feels that the work the committee is laying out has the potential to become a model for other communities.

“This group is going to make a pretty important set of recommendations to the City Council that will help guide water policy for the next 25 to 30 years, and it’s exciting to be a part of that process,” says Stearns. “Hopefully we will come up with a world-class, world-recognized model that other communities around the world can look to and say, ‘Wow, that was brave and daring and sustainable, and ultimately successful.’ Santa Cruz is a leader in a lot of ways, and I think this is another opportunity to solidify that label.”

Stearns isn’t the only one excited about the opportunity. Peter Beckmann, owner of Beckmann’s Old World Bakery, represents Think Local First on the committee, and wanted to get involved as soon as he heard about the group’s formation.

“It’s one of the most important questions that faces our community, and also has the potential to shape our community for the next 50 years, very drastically in one way or another,” says Beckmann. “Since I like the way that we live here, and I like our values and the philosophies in this town, I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”

Beckmann had kept himself informed on water issues before joining the committee, but says he only held a layman’s understanding of the city’s water supply. After participating in the committee for the past eight months, he says that his knowledge has grown immensely.

“It’s amazing. It’s mind-opening. It’s mind-boggling,” says Beckmann. “I took a tour of the city’s water system, and that’s where I learned a lot in the beginning of the process. It showed me how simple the whole thing is. It’s just basically a system of pipes and pumps, and a reservoir, and a few wells, but that’s it.”

The committee has recently completed and tested its multi-criteria decision support (MCDS) tool, which will help the group weigh and rate approximately 60 different water supply solutions that its members are considering. The ratings of different options get added up for a final score.

The committee will use the MCDS tool to start prioritizing solutions when it meets again in February. The tool allows the group to make decisions based on objectivity, which is paramount to the group, according to WSAC member Greg Pepping.

“It removes emotion,” says Pepping, who’s also executive director for the Coastal Watershed Council. “That’s one of the benefits, is that it tries to remove emotion and intuition, which may not guide you terribly well.”


PHOTO: Peter Beckmann of the Water Supply Advisory Committee says he was surprised by how simple Santa Cruz’s water system really is. KEANA PARKER

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