When it comes to regional water planning, where is the county headed?

It’s one week after Water Conservation Manager Toby Goddard presented the draft 2010 Urban Water Management Plan to the Santa Cruz City Council and he’s reflecting on some aspects of the report he feels were overlooked. For one thing, he says, nearly all of the citizens who spoke during the public comment period fixated on one sliver of the plan. (Not surprisingly, that sliver concerned the city’s divisive intent to pursue desalination.) Having spent the better part of five months crafting the UWMP (the fourth he’s written for the city), Goddard had hoped the rest of the hefty document would garner some interest, too. He notes that not a single person inquired about his careful choice of cover art—which, in a way, also had something to do with desalination.

“No one asked about the photo,” he says, pulling the image up on the desktop computer in his Water Department office. In it, coastal Santa Cruz meanders up from the bottom of the frame, stretching toward Capitola and Soquel, with the deep blue waters of Monterey Bay sweeping in on the right. “It was meant to tie in the regional view—looking east to Soquel and looking at our proximity to the ocean to give a picture of what our vision is,” Goddard continues. “This photo really captures that.”

The regional vision Goddard sees embodied in the photograph is one of neighborly collaboration: one in which the City of Santa Cruz, which has plenty of water in wet years and a big supply problem in dry years, partners with nearby Soquel Creek Water District (SqCWD) to build a 2.5 million gallon/day ocean water desalination plant. The city would use it about once in six years (in the case of a drought), allowing SqCWD to operate it otherwise. This arrangement would let Soquel rest its wells, which are currently pumping from dangerously over-drafted aquifers.

cover bay viewNeighboring water districts are required by the state’s Urban Water Management Planning Act to coordinate these plans, which Goddard says has resulted in some other shared ventures. One proposal explored in the city’s UWMP is a potential transfer between Santa Cruz and the Scotts Valley Water District, in which Scotts Valley would hand over a relatively small amount of recycled water (30 to 50 million gallons, or about just 1.5 percent of the city’s summer supply) for the city to use on Pasatiempo Golf Course. Santa Cruz would return the same amount, but of potable water, during the winter when they have excess surface flow. The project is about “sharing resources as a region as a way of solving problems,” says Goddard. Water Director Bill Kocher tells GT that all three parties—Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, and Pasatiempo—are serious about the possibility, but that it will “not be quick, nor cheap.” The two main obstacles will be the golf course’s ability to finance the necessary improvements, and creating a means for moving the water. Still, the UWMP factors this exchange in as a potential water source starting in 2020.

But it’s another suggested water transfer that has stolen the spotlight as of late—heralded as a no-brainer by some desalination critics, recently studied as a regional solution by the county, and repeatedly held at arm’s length by skeptical Santa Cruz officials.

This regional vision—in which Santa Cruz gives its excess winter water to SqCWD, and receives groundwater back in dry years—has become one of the touchiest, most quarreled over points in the enduring debate between the city and desalination opponents.

Sharing is Caring

Shifting water between agencies isn’t simple: it involves a lengthy water rights transfer—a backlogged state process that can take up to 20 years—and requires inter-tie pipelines to be constructed or enlarged. Hypothetically, Santa Cruz would harvest excess winter flow from the San Lorenzo River (the city gets more than half of its water from this waterway, but doesn’t use the maximum it is allowed to during the winter) and treat it at the Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant before shipping it to Soquel.

The idea was explored in previous Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD) and SqCWD studies and plans as far back as the ’80s, and each time it was shelved due to a few persisting factors, such as the messy water rights issue and, chiefly, the city’s concern over Soquel’s ability to send any water back. By the time the city adopted its Integrated Water Plan in 2005, which laid out a three-pronged approach to augmenting the water supply: conservation, curtailment and an alternative water source, it had pegged desalination as the most feasible solution for the latter, leaving a Soquel/Santa Cruz water exchange behind. The idea re-entered the conversation over the past year, thanks to a Prop. 50-funded study the county did on the subject. County Water Resources Division Director John Ricker presented his findings to the involved agencies in May, declaring that the transfer is a valuable “long-term” solution worth seriously pursuing, but that it does not serve as a “near-term” fix to either agency’s dilemma.

This conclusion echoes the stance of Santa Cruz officials, who have repeatedly said that while collaboration on a desalination plant could benefit both water agencies, the exchange would be a one-way boon. “There’s not much in it for us and we should be careful if it affects things that are near and dear to us, like our water rights,” Goddard explains. “The bottom line is this is really not an alternative to desalination.”

cover councilKocher addressed the subject at the Nov. 22 UWMP council hearing, quelling attendee demands for such a transfer to begin. “[Soquel] has yet to do any technical work to determine if that’s feasible,” he told the crowded council chambers. “I don’t think the city should be interested in encouraging them to extract from the basin until it begins to recover.” At this moment, someone in the audience hissed and another booed, and then-Mayor Ryan Coonerty interrupted to call the meeting to order. Kocher continued on to say, “The idea that much water would come back in the future is highly speculative. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore it, but the idea that it would allow us not to have to supplement supply … I just don’t see it.”

A month earlier, on Oct. 19, Thomas LaHue, president of SqCWD’s Board of Directors, sent the City of Santa Cruz a letter on this very subject. The letter read, “We are familiar with the city’s water shortage during drought, and we propose adding a reciprocity component into the transfer project concept.” LaHue says they wanted to make it clear that SqCWD could and would, in fact, return water; it would be water from their over-drafted basins, but water nonetheless.

“One of the things we understood right around the time of that letter was that the city was saying they didn’t think we were capable of giving water back, so why consider it?” says LaHue. “That’s not true. Our Board decided that we’re willing to give some water back. Yes, we’d have to provide water during the summer, which isn’t a great time since our aquifer is over-drafted. … [But] if we take in more water [from Santa Cruz in the winter] than we end up putting out, we’re still in positive territory.” A net gain of water overall would mean that SqCWD could recharge its basins during the winter.

The letter doesn’t change much in the eyes of Mike Rotkin, a former city councilmember and co-founder of the Sustainable Water Coalition. “They can promise the city the moon, but nobody knows if a water transfer system could ever return water to the City of Santa Cruz,” Rotkin writes in an email to GT. “They say that they are willing to study the issue, but that is not something our customers can drink in a future drought.”

(Rotkin, who was “the major person on the city council for the past 30 years dealing with water issues,” was initially opposed to desalination, but says facts eventually won him over. “The facts moved me to think that, along with an aggressive conservation program, we could have a small limited desal plant to get us through severe droughts,” he says. Now off the council, he advocates for desalination through the Sustainable Water Coalition.)

Present-day desalination opponents took the letter differently. Rick Longinotti heads Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, which advocates for increased conservation, water neutral growth, and utilization of existing resources before desalination is pursued. He believes the letter wasn’t just Soquel’s way of “expressing interest back,” as Kocher put it at the Nov. 22 meeting. “That letter is more than that: it’s about giving water back, which has been a principle objection that Santa Cruz has had,” says Longinotti.

How much water they could give back, however, remains to be seen. SqCWD has hydrologists working to figure out a sustainable yield projection (how much they could pump, realistically, per year and maintain a healthy supply), but cannot provide those figures at this time.

We’ll never know how much Soquel could give back unless we put time and money into studying it, says James “Jan” Bentley, who served as the city’s Water Production Manager for 14 years before retiring in 2008. “If [only] both agencies were willing to make a commitment to look at this scenario alongside desal and say ‘Let’s put a third of the amount of money we’ve put into desal’ so that we can tell them what it would take,” he says.

During his tenure at the Water Department, Bentley didn’t take a stance one way or the other on desalination, but he did have insight into the city’s water supply that most don’t, including watching, firsthand, as a few million gallons of usable San Lorenzo River water went unutilized each day during the winter.

“I always thought, when I was still working [for the city], that desalination would never get this far,” he says. “I thought the politics would come to bear and they’d go in another direction.” When that didn’t happen, Bentley attended the first desal-related event he caught wind of—a talk hosted by Longinotti. “I went up and spoke to Rick after and said ‘I wonder if you’d be curious to know something about the water system—and about the fact that there’s a lot of water they don’t use,’” recalls Bentley, who is now an advocate for the water transfer concept. “That was basically all I wanted to tell somebody. Lo and behold here I am, because I thought we’d get people’s attention sooner to the fact that we have all this water.”

Bentley used the Graham Hill Treatment Plant’s monthly data to calculate how much winter water was available for such a transfer. Considering that the city is able to use 7.5 mg/day from the San Lorenzo River, he looked at how much was actually used between November 2009 – May 2010 on days when the water was treatable (meaning he didn’t factor in days when the water was turbid, and none was taken from the river). He arrived at 583 mg, total, that could have been harvested. The average amount for December – April months between 2000 and 2010 was 676 mg.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to desal, period, if that proves to be the only resource the city can go to,” Bentley explains, setting himself apart from many other SC Desal Alternatives members. “But before Soquel ever runs a desal plant in the winter time when Santa Cruz gets plenty of water to serve them, I don’t think desal should ever happen. It literally doesn’t hurt Santa Cruz at all to give them that water during the winter.”

He speculates that the city is hesitant to get behind the transfer project because it fears it would lessen Soquel’s interest in a shared desalination plant. “If they have a reason to back out—such as they have access to excess winter supply—that throws a wrench in the works for Santa Cruz,” he says.

Goddard says he understands Bentley’s perspective. “His perspective is that if we harvested the water that is available by right and were able—we’re not now—to transfer that water to Soquel Creek, it would alleviate their need for that portion of that part of the desal plant and that would mean maybe we wouldn’t have to run the plant in a co-op, or as often or as much in order to meet their need,” he says. “He feels that this wintertime flow is not regionally optimized and if we were to do that, then they might not need the same supply.”

But, he continues, “What’s missing from [Jan’s] perspective there is that it does nothing for the city.”

Does it have to? “Jan Bentley would agree that it’s the right thing to do that if you have a district like Soquel Creek that’s in a bad way, and you have extra available water, why not just sell it to them?” Longinotti says. “Theoretically I agree with this, but I don’t want to lend credence to the idea that there isn’t anything in it for Santa Cruz, because I believe there is.”

Without a Paddle

“In a bad way” is one way to describe Soquel’s situation.

LaHue, who sports a collared Cornell Veterinary Medicine shirt, has been a practicing veterinarian in Capitola for 29 years, on top of which he also teaches high school (AP Environmental Science, fittingly). Before being elected to the SqCWD Board of Directors in 2003, he was a founding member and first president of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter, served on the State Regional Water Quality Control Board, and advocated for ocean and water quality as a member of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

cover ricHe pulls up a map of the district covered in blobs of red, green, blue and yellow; the plentiful red parts—gathered mostly in the map’s center—signify areas where the groundwater basin is below sea level. He refers to another chart, this one illustrating increasing chloride levels in the supply.

“The worst-case scenario is seawater intrusion, and then you’ve lost it all,” he says. “Unfortunately, once it happens it’s done for … maybe forever, maybe for hundreds or thousands of years. It’s not a lighthearted thing. Once it happens you’re stuck.”

Although there’s no telling when such calamity could occur, the district is currently taking measures to keep it at bay. It is moving pumping from coastal wells to wells further inland, essentially scooting further from the ocean’s influence. It also implemented aggressive curtailment and conservation measures over the last several years, the most effective of which have been toilet and turf rebates and a water demand offset program. These measures have successfully brought average per capita daily water use from 129 gallons/day in 2001 to 97 gallons/day in 2010.

“It’s been really successful, but a lot of the low-hanging fruit—the easy things where people get a lot of bang for their buck—those have already been done,” says LaHue. He’s still hoping that other methods—such as greywater, which they also offer a rebate for—will take off with customers. But SqCWD isn’t the only entity pumping from the aquifers, and thus their conservation and curtailment efforts can only go so far. He estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the pumping is done by private well owners (some big, like Cabrillo College and Seascape Golf Course, and many small). “We can control our pumping, but we can’t control theirs,” he says.

In the meantime, they continue to plan for an alternative source (desalination) and look at possibilities like the water transfer, which LaHue says would be cheaper and easier to implement than desal. However, he says, the bottom line is that such a transfer wouldn’t meet all of Soquel’s needs: the county’s study estimated that Santa Cruz could give SqCWD up to 340 acre-feet/year in the near term and up to 810 acre-feet/year in the long term, which is only a portion of the district’s projected shortfall of 1,392 acre/feet in 2020 and 1,116 in 2030 (according to SqCWD’s 2010 UWMP). These figures are based on projected demand, which was adjusted to account for cumulative conservation savings but also economic rebound (the drop to 4,084 acre/feet of total use in 2010 is partially attributed to commercial vacancies and other economic factors. Still, it’s a drastically smaller amount compared to the 5,614 acre-feet used in 2002). SqCWD’s UWMP does not factor possible water transfer amounts into its projections, but does indicate desalinated water as a potential incoming source starting in 2020.

Although a transfer wouldn’t squelch the district’s interest in desalination, LaHue says it could change how they might operate the plant.

“Even if we had a desal plant, it would cost us more to run it and have a higher energy use than if we were using water transfer,” he says. “In any given winter, if I had the choice between running the desal plant or a water transfer, and I only needed a certain amount and I want to get the less energy-intensive, less expensive water that’s cheaper for our customers and is protecting the basin, I’d choose water transfer.”

cover janThe more likely scenario—in which Scotts Valley gets dibs on water from Santa Cruz—means that “Soquel won’t get as much water” as they would if they were first in line, says Ricker, who conducted the county study. Scotts Valley would have all of its needs met most years, and Soquel would get about 30 percent of its needs met.

“For this [interest] in water transfer to come up now and all of a sudden the water is going to go to Scotts Valley, it’s like—where has Soquel been all these years?” says Bentley.

Simply put, an exchange with Scotts Valley is easier, says Ricker. “[The water rights] are not as big of a deal,” he explains. “The Loch Lomond water can go to Scotts Valley right now, because the water right already allows that. Its basin is not susceptible to seawater intrusion so they could send water to Santa Cruz right now, whereas Soquel has the threat of seawater intrusion looming over their shoulders.”

Proponents of the transfer, such as Bentley and Longinotti, argue that there are expedited processes for rights transfers as well as pre-1914 rights on the city’s North Coast streams that could make it faster and easier for Santa Cruz to give water to Soquel. And even if these don’t pan out, and the process does take years, they don’t see the point in waiting to apply.

“The benefit to Santa Cruz from doing the water transfer with us would be to get water from us during a drought,” says LaHue. “If I was them and I didn’t have that benefit, I wouldn’t see the reason for doing it either—other than just being a good guy.”

He laughs for a moment, and continues, “Because really, if you just erased all of the infrastructure and the districts and looked at the best way to manage the water resources of the area … that’s probably a good thing to come back to every once in a while. To say ‘OK, what’s the big picture?’ If one big organization managed all of the water supplies, they might use the excess San Lorenzo River winter water and they might pump it down further into this area. They just might do that.”

Reality Check

The City of Santa Cruz has their share of water woes, too, although none as urgent as SqCWD’s.

“Fish [agencies] are operating in our streams, our groundwater basin is declining and we still have to deal with year-to-year changes in weather,” Goddard summarizes. “On top of all that, our climate is changing.” The city has been in negotiations with state and federal fisheries agencies for 10 years over a Habitat Conservation Plan that will require the city to leave more water in its streams for fish populations. Santa Cruz has proposed reducing intake from its North Coast streams by 300 mg/year—“That’s what we are planning,” says Goddard. “It may be different.” This uncertainty has made planning for the city’s water future tricky, especially when coupled with other uncertainties, like the effects of climate change and a shrinking yield from their groundwater basin (from which they garner just 4 percent of their supply). But the greatest water-related concern to city officials is the likelihood of a drought, which spells bad news for a department that gets 95 percent of its water from surface sources.

“We have the responsibility of ensuring that we protect the general population from the ravages of a drought,” says Goddard. “There are a lot of responsibilities that we have as employees of the city that the critics simply don’t share. We take those responsibilities very seriously. Someone’s got to make sure that when you turn on the tap there is something there that isn’t going to harm them.”

Water department officials, city council members, and Sustainable Water Coalition leaders have all asserted that desalination opponents are using misinformation in their arguments. In an e-newsletter to its members, Sustainable Water Coalition co-founder Cynthia Mathews accused Longinotti of “playing fast and loose with the ‘facts.’” At the Nov. 22 council meeting, now-Mayor Don Lane gave a “reality check” presentation, in which he countered claims made in SC Desal Alternative newsletters. (Longinotti tells GT that he stands by everything he’s written.) Goddard points to an “unsupported” SC Desal Alternatives claim that the city could reduce its demand by 30 to 40 percent by enacting various measures they stand behind. To this he says, “This is my job. I was barely able to get a 7 percent reduction in 10 years. There’s a lot of use of the phrase ‘overly optimistic’ [for desal opponents] and that is truly overly optimistic.”

Longinotti sees it differently. “We’re the realists for the 20th century,” he says. In terms of his “idealistic” support of  a transfer, he adds, “We’re at the point where we can’t afford not to collaborate [with other water districts]. It’s a metaphor for individualistic lifestyle versus a community-oriented lifestyle. When you’re wealthy you can afford to be individualistic. As a community I think we’re near the end of being able to do that.”

Santa Cruz voters may have a chance to weigh in on desalination in 2012. SC Desal Alternatives submitted a ballot measure on Nov. 30 that would require city officials to obtain public approval before construction of the plant.

“We’re going that route because the Santa Cruz City Council seems to be on a track—they’ve called desal the preferred option,” Longinotti says. “We’re suggesting that it shouldn’t be the preferred option, it should be in the back pocket. It should be after you’ve tried other things.”

He and other members will begin gathering signatures in January (they need 10 percent of the voters by April, which Longinotti says “is not a problem”). If it passes, the council will go to the voters in 2014. Either way, the Environmental Impact Report on the desalination plant will arrive this coming spring, giving officials and citizens alike a chance to reflect on its feasibility—a condition the revised UWMP says could kill the plan.

As for the possibility of a water transfer, odds are it won’t become a reality instead of or before desalination, but Ricker believes it’s in the beginning stages of becoming a serious idea. “Everybody agrees that this is a good idea, with desalination, because they wouldn’t have to run the desal plant as much,” he says. The next step, he says, is to convene all related parties sometime this month or in January to form a working group that will dive into the engineering, legal and environmental issues involved.

Photos: Keana Parker

Contributor at Good Times |

Elizabeth Limbach is a writer and editor based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the former Managing Editor of Good Times Weekly. While at Good Times, she won six California Newspaper Publishers Association awards including First Place in the category of Best Writing for “Learning to Love Autism” (2011) and “Breaking the Silence” (2013). Her freelance work has been published by TheAtlantic.com, Parade.com, American Way, Ms., Sierra Magazine, E – The Environmental Magazine, Edible Monterey Bay and Edible Silicon Valley, among others. Find her online at elizabethlimbach.com.

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