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Once Upon a Stream: City Officials Question Reliability of the City’s Water Supply

water supplyCity leaders get excited about water, talk about possible ballot measure

Rain fell persistently throughout a recent Tuesday meeting as Santa Cruz City Council prepared for a momentous decision a few years in the making.

The steady precipitation provided a subtle irony as Santa Cruz city officials, water experts, scientists and citizens met at City Hall to solidify a plan about the reliability of the city’s water supply.

The replenishment of some water doesn’t amount to a whole lot, compared to a four-year drought across the state of California. Nor does it change the fact that Santa Cruz’s only summer water supply is the relatively small Loch Lomond reservoir nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains just northeast of Ben Lomond.

The reservoir is currently at a reassuring 66 percent of its full capacity, and its promising levels were a factor in the council voting to end water rationing a month ago.

For the short term, the tributary’s healthy numbers put the Santa Cruz Water Department and its customers in a more comfortable place than many Californians. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, as that reservoir, with its 2.8-million-gallon capacity, is all the city has to get itself through the summer seasons.

Throw in population growth, the need for increased water flows for endangered fish and the uncertainty of global warming, and water customers may have the recipe for a real shortage.

It was in that context that Mayor Don Lane called it a “monumental decision” when the council unanimously approved a plan for conjunctive use, the chief recommendation of the 14-person Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC), on Tuesday, Nov. 24.

Conjunctive use is a plan to build the infrastructure needed to pump additional water from the San Lorenzo River during the winter, when storms create higher river flows. If the plan works, the water department will inject the extracted water into groundwater systems with the aim of storing it in neighboring aquifers underneath by the Soquel Creek Water District, the Scotts Valley Water District, or both.

In theory, Santa Cruz water managers will then, they hope, extract some of the water back out of the aquifer as needed in critically dry months.

After the vote was called and the plan was ratified, a majority of attendees at the packed council chambers rose to their feet to give a standing ovation.

“This is a huge watershed decision for Santa Cruz,” Desal Alternatives Co-Chair Bruce Van Allen said at the meeting.

While a sense of jubilation permeated the proceedings, a few hurdles remain, one of them being cost.

Initial ballpark estimates predict the project may cost around $160 million, with the real cost possibly closer to $200 million—more expensive than the controversial proposed desal plant that got shelved after public outcry two and a half years ago. Rick Longinotti, leader of the activist group Desal Alternatives and a member of the WSAC, which spent the last 18 months exploring the full range of water supply enhancement options, estimates the cost could be as low as $70 million.

City of Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard says staff will spend the first five years in the study and planning phase. The water director adds that the department will keep the public apprised of costs and how it would affect ratepayers throughout the process.

There’s also the issue of collaboration. Conjunctive use will require the cooperation of neighboring water districts, one of which has already been burnt by Santa Cruz’s lack of decisiveness during the last round of ambitious attempts to address the problem.

Ron Duncan is the manager of Soquel Creek Water District, which was once slated to share Santa Cruz’s desal plant. He says the district is eager to work with partners to address concerns about a dwindling supply of groundwater that has led to seawater intrusion on a frightening scale. “At Pleasure Point, seawater levels are at least four times above accepted levels,” Duncan says. “At La Selva Beach, they are about 50 times in excess.”

If a significant amount of seawater reaches the Purisima Aquifer, which stretches from Seabright to Corralitos and holds billions of gallons, it will be ruined. However, Soquel Creek is not content to wait for Santa Cruz, Duncan says. They are moving forward with plans to build a recycled water purification plant, while keeping tabs on two separate proposals to build desalination plants in Monterey and Moss Landing.

“I think Santa Cruz has made great progress and any wounds from that desal era are healing,” Duncan says. “The community is moving past that. But, we understand the nature and the complexity of these issues and their present plan can succeed or fail for multiple reasons.”

Lane is all too aware of those reasons, especially the difficulty of getting the community on board. The city spent millions planning for a possible desal plant, only to back off a couple of years ago under pressure from activists.

Some councilmembers say one good way to measure interest from the community would be to put the project to a vote, although the council hasn’t signaled that it will pursue one yet.

At the meeting, Councilmember Richelle Noroyan asked for clarification as to why the council wasn’t pursuing a ballot measure. Lane and Councilmember Micah Posner each had different answers.

Posner said putting the plan on the ballot in June might send a message to neighboring water districts that there isn’t a commitment to the plan and create unnecessary delays. “Ballot measures are not the most nuanced form of communication,” Posner said before the vote.

Lane says that he’s happy to put the matter on hold for now. But sooner or later, he says, the council should consider a ballot measure on the WSAC recommendations, which include recycled water and desal as potential backup plans. He says the city can’t afford to put its water supply needs on hold again.

“I’m happy to set this aside for now, but if we as a council do not do something that asks for a firmer commitment, we are asking for trouble,” Lane said.


ROOM FOR CHANGE The city’s Water Supply Advisory Committee met for 18 months and wrapped up its recommendations to the Santa Cruz City Council in October. The council approved the committee’s report last month. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

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