Historical tome lends new perspective on present-day local water issues
The track record of grand solutions to dwindling water supplies in Santa Cruz is marked by a few brilliant successes. But also visible upon close examination is wreckage of plans that capsized after hitting political rapids or became beached when funding dried up, according to local historian Randall Brown. In his 2011 book, “The San Lorenzo Valley Water District: A History,” Brown looks 150 years down the stream of the area’s history, exploring what worked and what caused more harm than good.
He says writing the book gave him a new understanding of how local agencies should plan water strategies into the future. This new perspective comes just as the City of Santa Cruz is partnering with the Soquel Creek Water District to pursue a controversial ocean water desalination plant. The facility they envision would produce up to 900 million gallons per year for the area at full capacity, and is the most extensive local water proposal in decades. Although the plant they are considering could produce 2.5 million gallons of fresh water per day, the plan is for Santa Cruz to utilize it only during drought years, and for Soquel to use it in other years, giving them a chance to recharge their severely over-drafted groundwater basins.
The two districts have spent $12 million since 2002 studying desalination and hope the plant will be operational by 2016. However, many details of a possible final product remain murky. No plant design or specific funding source have been identified. This makes Brown skeptical that the plant will ever reach completion, especially on the timeline district officials have set out.
He has lived in the Santa Cruz area since the ’70s, when environmentalism grabbed momentum from forces pushing for rapid population growth and development. According to his book, even before this shift, several one-shot solutions failed in the planning stages.
“It’s very easy to kill a project with an Environmental Impact Report, and for good reason,” he says. The EIR for the prospective desalination plant will be completed in Spring 2012.
He points to several dam proposals as evidence—noting a proposed Zayante Dam on Newell Creek as the most memorable. The project withered in the environmental review process, partly due to a hoax by San Lorenzo Valley Water District official Al Haynes. Haynes wrote a letter to his own district posing as a scientist and claiming that building the dam would risk wiping out the endangered “Zayante Humpback Slug.” Neither the slug nor scientist Thomas Lundquist existed. Regardless, the letter managed to get into the final report, and the dam was never built.
“The Zayante Dam, had it been built, would have been four times the size of the desal plant [in terms of production],” says Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher. “Al Haynes was obviously toying with people by making up a fictitious endangered species, but there are people that are very passionate [and] that are not helpful.”
There were, however, real environmental risks posed by the dam project. Well into the research phase, with millions of dollars spent, UC Santa Cruz scientists found that the San Andreas fault ran right next to the proposed site.
Opposition in the present water debate is headed by Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, an anti-desal advocacy group founded by retired electrician Rick Longinotti. The group questions the wisdom of building the plant, arguing that it is a high-cost, high-energy solution that perpetuates growth and consumption instead of sustainability.
“The alternative to desalination would require the community to commit to increased conservation and a water neutral growth policy,” according to desalalternatives.org.
Longinotti points to shrinking consumption in recent years as proof that there is no need for desalination.
Kocher says he also supports conservation, such as limiting outdoor water usage for lawns and other irrigation combined with efforts to recycle greywater. At this point, though, he says that will not be enough to support Santa Cruz’s needs in the future. When the economy recovers (and vacant commercial space is refilled, among other changes) usage will shoot back up, and a drought could do serious damage to the city, says Kocher.
“People’s memory of drought is very short,” he says. “When [dry years] come people are hugely curious about solutions, then when the rain comes back they forget very quickly what they went through and what it did to the economy.”
Kocher says construction of the dam that created the Loch Lomond Reservoir is comparable to the size of the desalination project, and it would have been under even more criticism than the desalination plant is now. The environmental impact of dams is a major reason to explore new options including desalination, says Kocher.
“[Dams are cheap] but fairly detrimental to the environment,” Kocher says. “Projections show the state is going to see a population of 40 million by 2020, and there is no way [we] are going to do this with dams and flowing services. All the cheap water is used up.”
Environmentalists and fishery agencies are also in favor of moving away from dams to restore natural habitats.
“[Dams] are almost always detrimental to migratory fishes,” according to a 2001 report entitled “The Effects Of Summer Dams On Salmon And Steelhead In California Coastal Watersheds And Recommendations for Mitigating Their Impacts by the National Marine Fisheries Service.” “Large dams for flood protection, water supply, and hydroelectric production have appreciably reduced available habitat for [king] salmon and steelhead [salmon].”
Water district officials say that nothing in the reports from their pilot desalination plant at Long Marine Lab show damage to the environment that compares with local dams. They add that scientific studies are not omniscient.
“Through the pilot subsurface and open ocean [water intake] work we can only project reasonably into the future,” says Desalination Program Coordinator Heidi Luckenbach.
This sort of historical hindsight makes Brown wary of the desalination project.
“The lesson of the ’50s and ’60s is that with all the big plans, sometimes a combination of smaller solutions is a better idea,” he says. “There were plans to put up dozens of dams because that was the mindset of the time.
Brown’s book also explores the pitfalls of financing of past projects. In the 1880s, Santa Cruz first attempted to buy local mogul Fred Hihn’s private water company to convert it into a municipal district. It was the dawn of the progressive era and the city was under the leadership of liberal Mayor Robert Effey.
“When the first bonds were issued, newspapers advertised that it will be ‘free water!’” says Brown. “Then Hihn sued them and stopped the bond issue. He said ‘I’m a big taxpayer and you can’t use the bonds to buy my [water] system.’”
The second attempt came in 1893. The city secured $700,000 in bonds from a bank in New York. But the bank went out of business during the financial crash of 1894, and the deal fell through.
“[The city was left] holding the bag with all these bonds,” says Brown. “Headlines said ‘[it] costs the city $700,00 without a cent of benefit.’ So the dream of free water was all good, but it was a pipe dream.”
In today’s dollars that equals more than $15 million. Estimates of the desalination plant range from $70 million to $130 million. Brown believes that the possibility of banks going out of business today is not a far-fetched idea and that water agencies should be aware of this.
Kocher says the city is planning to use a combination of state and federal grants to pay for the project, but bonds will cover the remainder. The two water agencies hope to pay for the bonds through increases in water rates for users over a period of about 25 years.
“Rates would be impacted for at least 25 years to make the impact as little as possible,” he says. “The quicker it is paid the total cost is smaller, but the impact is greater on rates.”
Kocher says he would be very surprised if the bonds were issued without a popular vote.
Brown says that, after all other issues are settled, this could doom the project.
“It’s going to come down to the taxpayers, and ‘no’ comes very easily to mind,” he says. “Especially in tough times like we are living through now.”