Desalination is in the spotlight, but whatever happened to a regional water exchange?
Jan Bentley worked for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department for 15 years. For 14 of those years, from 1994 until he retired in 2008, Bentley served as the city’s Water Production Manager. Among his duties, Bentley was responsible for monitoring water intake, treatment and distribution. As such, he came to know the ins and outs of the Santa Cruz water supply—how much was available, from which sources, and how much was used.
The city relies solely on surface water and is heavily dependent on rainfall. But in the winters, Bentley says he would watch as millions of gallons went unused each day. “They [the city] do maximize summer use, but they don’t maximize winter use,” he says. “There’s a lot of excess water to be had in the winter.”
He was in favor of the idea of a regional water exchange, in which this excess water would be given to Soquel Creek Water District during the winter to help it relieve its dangerously depleted groundwater basin, when it was presented as an option in the 2000 Alternative Water Supply Study (it had also been looked at in earlier studies, like the 1989 Water Master Plan). “From the operation standpoint, we were saying, ‘Hey, if we could find a way to get rid of this water it would really help us and we could help someone else,’” he says.
But the 2000 study concluded that the water exchange wasn’t worth pursuing, mostly because Soquel didn’t have much water to give back and because of the long, complicated process of opening up the water rights—fishery agencies petition without fail and it can take 20 years for the state to finally approve the change. So the idea was set aside, and desalination, another of the options being explored, took center stage. But as the Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District work together on plans for a desalination plant that could generate 2.5 million gallons of water each day—even forming a new joint agency called scwd2— Bentley can’t get the city’s wasted winter water out of his head.
“[When I worked there], it wasn’t my business to feel the way I do now, and it wasn’t hard not to worry about because I said, ‘I just do my job, and this will all come out in the wash someday,’” he says. “But lo and behold when I retired in 2008, I [started] thinking, ‘They’re still going at this and it’s not right.’ In my opinion, they need to at least give some consideration to the water they already have.”
Bentley isn’t the only one pushing for a water transfer; it is a popular option among desalination opponents and is recommended by local water activist Rick Longinotti on his website, desalalternatives.org.
Seated in his midtown dining room, Bentley presents a chart he created that details the amounts of water left unused between November 2009 and May 2010. He used data from the Santa Cruz Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant’s Monthly Raw Source Flow Information Report, which documents usage from the San Lorenzo River, where the city gets 65 percent of its water. He took the amount of water used from the river on each day and subtracted it from 7.5 million gallons—the amount the plant is allowed to use per day. Consistent with his observations when he was production manager, Bentley found that “for this seven month period, they left 583 million gallons of water they could’ve treated.”
Soquel Creek would operate the proposed desalination plant five out of six years, generating around 1.5 million gallons a day. Santa Cruz could operate it during a drought, or an estimated one out of six years, pumping 2.5 million gallons a day. Unlike other desalination opponents, who want to see no plant built, Bentley believes that arguing against the project, for which the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is currently under way, won’t stop the scwd2. He does, however, hope to alter their plans.
“I’m giving in to that—I’m saying, build your desal plant,” Bentley says, “but it doesn’t make sense to run it at 1.25 or 1.5 million gallons a day when I can guarantee you there is that much water at the treatment plant just sitting there looking for someplace to go.” In addition to cost and not using existing water, one of the main criticisms of desalination is that it is energy-intensive. Bentley also believes that utilizing a water exchange could decrease the size and energy consumption of the proposed plant.
The city’s decision to pursue desalination for a supplemental water supply is consistent with its Integrated Water Plan (IWP), which was approved by the city council in 2005. The plan calls for conservation, curtailment and an additional water supply source—desalination was chosen to fill the shoes of the latter. Not pursued in the city’s IWP after being shot down in the 2000 study, a regional water exchange idea is now being investigated by the county in a Prop. 50-funded study conducted by Water Resource Division Director John Ricker.
Ricker will present his findings to the two water departments in the coming weeks, and to the county Board of Supervisors in the spring. In his study, Ricker is examining the factors that have previously kept Santa Cruz from entering into a transfer with Soquel; chief among them is the up to 20-year wait for the rights to get approved. According to Dave Clergen, spokesperson for the State Water Resources Control Board, “There is a backlog due to the legal and technical complexity of many of the individual cases and due to lack of resources over the years.” Ricker says that there is hope of expediting the process—especially if the area’s state representatives get involved—but Clergen could not comment on the likelihood of a sped up process. “We really can’t get into hypotheticals in specific cases,” he says. “We need to see an application.”
For his part, Bentley wishes the city had bitten the bullet and applied for a water rights transfer when they contemplated the idea in the ’90s. “We could be 15 years into a water rights change,” says Bentley. Bill Kocher, water director for the City of Santa Cruz, doesn’t disagree. “Even though you know it’s going to be a lengthy process, that shouldn’t defer you from getting started,” he says. “The only reason it hasn’t gotten started is because we’ve gotten so busy with more immediate planning. We are guilty of doing that.”
But there is a way around getting the state involved: Three of the city’s surface water sources, collectively known as the North Coast streams, were appropriated before 1914, and, therefore, the rights do not have to go to the state for revision. Technically, Santa Cruz could give that water away now. “The city could move water from those North Coast streams to places outside the city service area, but it’s a moot distinction,” says Kocher. “In the end it doesn’t matter because the thing that will make the most difference is whether we can get a habitat conservation [permit].”
Enter the next major obstacle to a water trade: fishery agencies, like California’s Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service. They petition any water rights that open, and would have the ability to do so for the North Coast streams, as well.
Kocher says that his disinterest in a water exchange back in the ’90s was because of this complication—he didn’t want the fisheries to jump at the chance to ask the city to reduce their surface water intake. But this has changed because of the city’s negotiations on a habitat conservation plan. “Since then the city has voluntarily entered into discussions about water releases with Fish and Game and NOAA Marine Fisheries,” says Kocher. “So that no longer really is an issue, we already know there will be water loss.”
The fishery agencies are unabashedly in favor of the desalination plan. “They understand [desalination] would reduce our withdrawal from streams,” says Kocher. “They don’t care what it is, if something else can be done, they’re supportive.”
While Santa Cruz would mostly rely on desalination for drought relief, Kocher says it would also serve to appease these agencies. “It wouldn’t need to be used to benefit fisheries all that often, but it may have to be used for that purpose as well,” he says. “We currently take all water from surface sources, [and] what the fisheries are saying is [we] don’t get to continue doing that. The only other place to take it if you aren’t doing surface is the Loch Lomond Resevoir, but we can’t draw it down because it represents the only water we have stored for drought conditions. With a desalination plant, in the summertime you could draw the lake down further than you would otherwise, knowing that if the following winter is dry you can rely on desalination the next summer instead of drawing down the lake.”
To get a water exchange plan approved, the water districts would not only have to prove “with solid documentation” that the project would not negatively affect salmon and steelhead populations, but that it would also benefit them. Ricker says the catch is that they cannot know the benefits until Soquel’s basin recovers, which is years away. “What we’re expecting is that, as the groundwater basins recover, the water table will come up and that will provide more water into the streams to increase the base flow,” says Ricker. “So there will be a benefit but quantifying that is very challenging.”
Another inhibitor is that the water swap wouldn’t be much of a swap—whether Soquel could actually return water to Santa Cruz remains to be seen. According to Laura Brown, general manager for Soquel Creek Water District, there is a vast gap between the district’s water needs and the sustainable yield of the groundwater basin, which is below sea level and facing the imminent threat of seawater intrusion.
“They need to get it up from sea level and then they can export more safely, but it could be a number of years before they can send water back,” says Ricker. As for Bentley’s idea that Soquel increase curtailment and use that water to pay Santa Cruz back in dry months, Ricker says, “I don’t know that Soquel has the pumping capacity to meet Santa Cruz’s demands even if they did curtail.”
Santa Cruz is in more auspicious talks with Scotts Valley about a water swap, says Kocher, where Scotts Valley would provide reclaimed water to Pasatiempo Golf Course and Santa Cruz would give back treated water in the same amount. “It won’t require that kind of a drawn out water rights process” because of jurisdictions, says Kocher. “It also represents a finite in the books swap, so if they send 30 to 50 million gallons of reclaimed water into our district, we’ll send the exact amount back. It’s different accounting [than with Soquel]. And it’s on a smaller scale.” Unlike an exchange with Soquel, which would be more of a “water share,” the agreement with Scotts Valley would “truly be a swap,” says Kocher.
Ultimately, Kocher and Brown say a water exchange is an idea worth exploring, but not a substitute or alternative to desalination. Ricker’s study may have similar conclusions. In a statement on the scwd2 website, he says that, “the possibility of a water exchange is not a near-term solution to the water supply shortage faced by the city and Soquel Creek” and should not be considered an alternative to desalination.
Desal opponents argue that “where there’s a will there’s a way,” and that through conservation, curtailment and a regional water share, a desalination plant wouldn’t be necessary.
Bentley, who says questions and comments about ideas other than desalination have gone unacknowledged by officials, just hopes Ricker’s report sheds some light on a more holistic, integrated approach. “It makes sense on a regional, common-sense basis to utilize the water we already have,” he says. “I think [John Ricker’s study] is huge. Depending on what it looks like when it comes out, it might wake people up to what’s really going on with desalination.”
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