Why the approval of the Urban Water Management Plan was postponed
On the evening of Oct. 3, as the first rain of the season trickled down from darkening skies, the Santa Cruz Water Commission met with community members to publicly review the Draft 2010 Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP).
As a public water supplier, the City of Santa Cruz is required under California law to adopt a UWMP, which must be updated every five years.
The UWMP’s 351 pages, prepared by the Santa Cruz Water Department, outline the existing intricate water supply situation, and point to the future installation of a seawater desalination plant as the most viable way to supply the City of Santa Cruz, and partnering Soquel Creek Water District, with a stable water supply.
Despite some Water Department staff objection, the Water Commission voted at the Oct. 3 meeting not to approve the draft plan or send it to the Santa Cruz City Council until their next meeting in November.
The Water Commission’s vote addressed public concerns that the recent release of the UWMP had not given the public ample time to read the capacious document. At the proposal of Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher, a study session was scheduled to address questions and public input on Nov. 1.
Rick Longinotti of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives wrote a letter to the Santa Cruz Water Commission on Sept. 30 urging the commission to refer the draft back to the Water Department for revisions.
“The Draft was released to the public on the afternoon of Sept. 29, leaving just four days for the public to digest before the hearing on the Draft at your Oct. 3rd meeting,” his letter begins.
Kocher says he was disappointed that the draft UWMP was not approved, but that he understands the public’s concern over not having enough time with the draft previous to the Water Commission meeting.
“The meeting was the first public hearing of [the UWMP], and there will still be two more in front of [the] city council,” says Kocher.
The Water Department tentatively aims to take the draft to the Water Commission on Nov. 7 and begin to incorporate any recommended changes. The next step will be to put the recommendations on paper for the city council.
“We’re going to try to get it to the Nov. 22 council meeting for the first public hearing, then take it back to the council on Dec. 13 for adoption, after we’ve incorporated any changes they want,” says Kocher.
The question of whether or not to erect a desalination plant in Santa Cruz is at the forefront of the area’s water debate.
The UWMP and Santa Cruz Water Department pinpoint desalination as the most viable option for Santa Cruz’s water future, based on a potential worst-case drought scenario comparable to that of 1976-77. Those who oppose the desalination plan urge the water department to reconsider its alternative options, and point out that a worst-case drought scenario similar to that of 1976-77 is a one-in-73 year occurrence.
“I urge you to consider whether Santa Cruz residents would support the construction of a desalination plant for a one-in-73 year event,” Longinotti writes in his Sept. 30 letter.
Kocher says he agrees that the likelihood of a critical drought any given year is low, but the Water Department’s policy is one of risk aversion.
“It’s the potential consequences you have to look at,” he says. “We only have 73 years of recorded hydrological data, and in that time we’ve had two nasty droughts. There is no question; we are going to have drought situations in the future that are very bad. … One could say, ‘Let’s take the chance, it might not even happen.’ And it’s possible the climate change we see coming and all the things that could happen with thesystem aren’t going to happen. … But when you are responsible like [the city] council is for the consequences of the outcome, you don’t have the luxury of taking chances.”
Kocher concludes that building a desalination facility is vital in order to prevent serious issues in the event of a future emergency drought situation.
According to the draft plan’s estimates, Santa Cruz will have a total water supply of 3,200 million gallons per year (mgy) under current conditions in the second year of a worst-case drought similar to the 1976-77 event.
Desal Alternatives argues that since 3,200 mgy was the total water production in 2010, a worst-case drought would not cause Santa Cruz to experience a shortfall at all if it were to occur today, as long as demand for water remained at 2010 levels.
Kocher argues that the 2009-2010 data is skewed, as 2009 was a drought year in which water use was restricted. He further states that according to historical patterns and estimates, it is unlikely that demand for water will remain at 2010 levels or remain low. Rather, he says, demand will likely increase.
In addition, Kocher argues that the federal government is increasingly concerned that Santa Cruz water supply is drawing water at rates harmful to fisheries.
“The federal government is coming down on us,” says Kocher. “During water supply planning 10 years ago I said it would be insane to try to draft a long-term water plan unless we had an answer to whether we’d have to give up current supplies for fisheries. It was my idea that we’d get the answer quickly, and include that date in the master plan, but it’s still unresolved.” Kocher met with fishery officials on Tuesday, Oct. 4, and the issue remains uncertain.
“Someday the hammer is going to come down,” Kocher says in reference to the issue of decreased stream flow access due to fisheries. “We know what the minimum loss in water supply [to fisheries] is going to be and it’s a lot of water.”
Kocher estimates it will be between 300 and 800 million gallons a year, depending fluctuating stream flows. Currently, the City of Santa Cruz relies solely on surface water sources for its water supply.
“When people come up with things they are calling alternatives, its my job to say to [city council] whether I think it’s viable or not,” says Kocher. “I have not heard of anything I think is a viable replacement for desalination.”
Desal Alternatives argues that even in the case of reduced access to stream flows due to fish habitat needs, the incorporation of conservation and a water neutral development plan could ensure water supply remained at the 3,200 mgy level.
“Assuming zero growth in water demand, what will our drought risk be with the reduction in flows available to the city due to fish habitat needs? Not much different, according to the Draft UWMP and the city’s draft Conservation Strategy,” writes Longinotti in his letter to the Water Commission. “The Conservation Strategy calls for adherence to ‘Tier 2’ or ‘Tier 3’ water flows for fish habitat except under dry conditions, when doing so would cause a peak-season shortfall of over 5 percent. So in a worst-case drought year, the city plans revert to Tier 1 flow levels, which results in a total water supply of 3,200 mgy.”
Paul Gratz of Desal Alternatives says the only remaining rationale for desalination is to satisfy growth in water demand.
“And we have an answer for that,” he says, “Water neutral development. … The Draft Urban Water Management Plan for the City of Santa Cruz is very interesting because it publishes numbers for supply and demand that clearly show greatly reduced drought risk .”
By implementing water neutral development, which the draft UWMP does not mention as an option, Desal Alternatives argues the region could prevent water demand from rising as new development is built.
Soquel Creek Water District has a water-neutral policy requiring developers to fund conservation measures to offset increased demand. Soquel Creek Water District’s Urban Water Management Plan projects a reduction in water demand between 2015 and 2030 of 8 percent, due to conservation policies.
In contrast, Santa Cruz projects an increase in water demand of 14 percent by 2030.
“It appears that among the Water Commission members there is a significant shift and healthy skepticism occurring with regard to community participation, the rational for [desalination], and examining the recommended array of least cost options available,” says Gratz.
The draft Urban Water Management Plan is available to read on the City of Santa Cruz website, cityofsantacruz.com. Photo: jesse clark