Nowhere to Run

news1 creekAre illegal creek and river diversions drying up the county’s North Coast waterways?

Even after retiring more than 30 years ago, former Santa Cruz Public Works director Bill Fieberling cannot get the city’s well-being off his mind. His primary concern these days is water, and more specifically, the way some property owners are diverting the precious resource from the county’s North Coast creeks and streams.

“Water is in very short supply in the state, and certainly around here with our water rationing,” says Fieberling. “So, I’ve been checking Laguna Creek in the lower area down by Highway 1 all summer, and there’s practically no flow in it. I’d say it’s less than a half of a cubic foot per second.”

Fieberling’s investigation went farther than the mouth of Laguna Creek. A few weeks ago, the retired public works director hiked up the creek in order to trace the source of the impeded flow. “I got a case of poison oak while I was looking,” says the 89-year-old Fieberling.
Fieberling isn’t the only one paying attention. The Santa Cruz Water Department has tipped off the state’s Water Board, National Marine Fishery Service, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about various questionable water diversions on Majors, Liddell and Newell Creeks, and tributaries of Bean Creek in the past, and most recently informed the agencies about the diversion on Laguna Creek.

The primary concerns of activists and water officials are the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout that require running water to spawn.

“If these streams are going dry, or the amount of water is significantly less, ultimately we’ll have fewer adults returning to the streams, and that’s when populations become weak and more vulnerable to other impacts,” says Jonathan Ambrose, biologist at the National Marine Fishery Service. “It’s really important for folks to understand that if the stream goes dry for even a little while, that can have impacts long into the future.”

That’s why the biggest diverter of streams and creeks in the county—the Santa Cruz Water Department—does not divert water from places like Laguna Creek during the summer months. This keeps the city in compliance with state and federal environmental standards, which are in place to allow the endangered fish species to breed and grow.

It’s a big part of why city water customers have to conserve during most summers. But as long as people are diverting already low streams anyway, it’s hard for fish lives to get any easier.

Ambrose says that the streams are lower because of the recent drought, but the extremely low or nonexistent flows are mostly attributed to the large number of diverters in the county.

“I don’t think there is a lot of question about that,” says Ambrose. “I work on streams all over the place and the reason that they’re going dry, or going dry sooner, is due to this competition for water.”   

It’s not certain what people are doing with the water, but two marijuana growers who were arrested in July had been diverting water from San Vicente Creek.

Ripple effect

In the distant past, when county residents were diverting waterways in unreasonable ways, the water department resorted to a more hands-on approach toward handling rule-breakers.

“If you go back into the history of the city’s water development, this has been going on ever since the city started diverting water,” says Chris Berry, watershed compliance manager with the City of Santa Cruz. “One of the water rights we acquired from someone on the North Coast, shortly after we acquired their water rights, they immediately put in a dam, and basically took the water that they had just sold to the city. The city staff actually went out and destroyed that new dam. That was how things were done 100 years ago. Nowadays it’s a different story, and we tend to settle things civilly.”

In 2014, the policing of illegal water diversions is conducted by the State’s Water Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and it’s largely complaint-driven, Berry says.

“It’s very loosely regulated,” says Berry. “Frankly, until someone like the city starts making noise about the issue, it doesn’t really get investigated. In the case where someone is drying up a stream, it’s fairly obvious that there’s an impact and that will draw the attention of regulators.”

The punishments for unreported water diversions can range anywhere from criminal penalties to monetary fines of $1,000, with an additional $500 for each day of use 30 days after notification. Berry says that agencies will often work with property owners to dispel issues of water diversion without any rash punishment, but if the property owner disputes the issue, the litigation process can go on for a long time.

“The state water board has only a limited number of staff that deal with these enforcement issues, so sometimes these complaints can go on for years and years,” says Ambrose.

State water officials could not be reached for comment.

In the Pines

All diverters, whether domestic or commercial, are required to report water diversions to the state’s Water Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, but acquiring the proper permits and reaching compliance is a complicated step-by-step process.

Because of the cumbersome procedure, it is apparent why some may choose to divert water in the county without reporting use, but when an illegal diversion occurs, the fish and other wildlife that need the flowing water to survive are the most affected.

“Fish need water. It’s very simple,” says Ambrose. “We look at a stream like Soquel Creek, and if one is to look at the hydrograph or the gauge on that stream, it’s going dry in portions of the year, and if a stream goes dry for one minute, we have dead fish.”

Ambrose says that the recent drought is partially to blame for the drying waterways, but the extremely low or nonexistent flows are also attributed to the large number of small diverters in the county.

“I don’t think there is a lot of question about that,” says Ambrose. “I work on streams all over the place and the reason that they’re going dry, or going dry sooner, is due to this competition for water.”

Fieberling and the city have taken notice of the lack of water running in Laguna Creek and others, and Ambrose says that there are indeed many waterways in the county that are seeing low flows this summer.

“Laguna Creek is a problem, as well as some of the upper tributaries to the San Lorenzo,” Ambrose says. “One of the examples is Bean Creek in the Scotts Valley area. We’re seeing Bean Creek starting to go dry. Soquel is also one that’s a major issue, and we’ve been getting reports at tributaries such as King’s Creek and Bear Creek. I haven’t seen them personally, but we’ve been getting reports that the lows there are very, very low.”

With the future generations of endangered species at stake, it would seem that all diverters would be more willing to comply with state laws and report water diversions, but Ambrose feels that many in the county are simply unaware of their impact.

“I think a lot of people just don’t know,” says Ambrose. “That’s not their fault, but I think if we can start increasing awareness, that will go a long way.” PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

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