Local agencies have managed Santa Cruz County’s groundwater basins for decades, but now with the stakes higher than ever, new coalitions are forming.
The Santa Cruz Mid-County groundwater basin, the sole water source for more than 42,000 residents between Soquel and La Selva Beach, is in dire straits. Since the 1980s, customers have drawn from wells faster than the rains can replenish them. Now that its water levels are below sea level, seawater has started to seep inland, contaminating the wells.
In January, the Mid-County basin, which also supplies 5 percent of the city of Santa Cruz’s water, was listed as “critically overdrafted” by the state’s Department of Water Resources. The nearby Pajaro Valley basin also received that listing. It’s the worst classification level, given to just 21 basins in California.
A new state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, took effect last year, requiring the formation of new local agencies and plans to manage troubled basins. Deadlines must be met—agencies must be formed by June 2017 and plans by 2022—or else the state will intervene. Critically overdrafted basins such as Mid-County’s are on a shorter timeline—they must have a plan by 2020.
Each plan must create a strategy for monitoring and fixing its local overdraft issues. Each region has its own complexities, ranging from seawater intrusion along the Central Coast, to contaminated water or sinkholes.
This new state model of local accountability makes sense, says Ron Duncan, general manager of the Soquel Creek Water District.
“Water is a very regional thing. There’s regional issues and regional solutions, so it doesn’t work for the state to mandate an x, y or z solution because it may not make sense,” Duncan says.
For the first time in California, responsible management of groundwater by local agencies is being mandated, not just encouraged. Within 20 years of adopting a plan, every agency must achieve groundwater sustainability, according to law.
A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 19, at Simpkins Family Swim Center in Live Oak to designate a new local group, called the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency, to manage the mid-county basin. Public comment will be heard and incorporated, before the intent is filed with the state, says Bruce Jaffe, the agency’s head and also a longtime member of Soquel Creek Water District’s board.
The Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency has 10 other members, including Tom LaHue, also a Soquel Creek Water District board member, two Santa Cruz city councilmembers, two Santa Cruz County supervisors, two Central Water District board members and two private well owners, who also rely on the basin for their water supply.
Alliances between the city of Santa Cruz, the county and other users are key, says Jaffe, who for the past decade was part of the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency’s predecessor, the Soquel Aptos Groundwater Management Committee, formerly called the Basin Implementation Group.
“When you have the county, the city and two groundwater agencies and private pumpers, you don’t always see eye-to-eye on every issue, but all the members have talked things out and we’ve come to a resolution on every issue we’ve encountered so far,” Jaffe says.
The agency will soon hire a staff made up of local water administrators like Duncan to support its executive staff members. Duncan was also involved with the agency’s predecessor, and says the formation of this new version feels more urgent. State water officials, he believes, are more serious now.
“We’ve neglected the groundwater situation statewide for so long, and now they really want [local] agencies, committees to be serious,” he says.
The state has already approved the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, which serves agricultural customers and Watsonville-area residents, as the local agency managing the Pajaro Valley basin.
In Santa Cruz County, previous groundwater agencies have already made headway with solving the problem of overdraft. Since the 1990s, more than 80 “sentry wells” have been laid along the coast to monitor for seawater intrusion. Water districts also moved well drilling inland, to prevent contamination.
Local districts have also become more aware of conservation. For example, Soquel Creek customers have cut their use by half since 2003, and now the district has one of the lowest rates of use per capita in the state.
When the state groundwater law was passed in 2014, local organizers began to hold public meetings to discuss how the new agency would be formed. Around 20 meetings have been held so far, and several attracted more than 60 attendees. Every private well owner in the region was invited, and many of the large commercial customers came, such as Cabrillo College and Seascape Golf Club. Updates are also posted on the groundwater agency’s website, midcountygroundwater.org.
Duncan says agency members are focusing all their energy on the formation process, and talk of a plan to solve the overdraft problem has not begun. If the agency is formed correctly, then solutions will unfold naturally, he says.
Duncan says having a precedent for collaboration puts Santa Cruz County ahead of the curve with local groundwater agency formation.
“We’ve been developing those relationships and trust, and that’s huge because we’ve got to balance the basin,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about who’s doing what, and how much you’ve got to contribute to balance the basin.”
The agency has a $1.3 million budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, $140,000 of that from grants and the rest contributed by the individual agencies. Soquel Creek Water District, the basin’s largest user, contributed around $800,000 from its general fund and the Central Water District, city of Santa Cruz and county of Santa Cruz each contributed $115,250.
Steven Springhorn, a California Department of Water Resources geologist helping with implementation of state groundwater law, says that the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency is a good example of how local groups can work together. Elsewhere, overlapping boundaries between jurisdictions complicates the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies [GSAs], he says, but that’s not the case in Santa Cruz County.
“Statewide, there still remains a lot of coordination [to be done],” Springhorn says. “It’s kind of taking two different approaches—the Santa Cruz approach, where they’re choosing to meet, coordinate and resolve some of the details first, and then form their GSA and get it posted online. Others came at it from a more individual, single-agency perspective.”