Why I’m Celebrating

I had serious misgivings about the energy consumption of the proposed desalination plant when it was adopted into City policy in 2005. In 2009 I had time to do something about it. I worked with Ecology Action, Surfrider Foundation and Save Our Shores to put on a forum on desalination at Live Oak School in March, 2010. On the panel was Debbie Cook, former mayor of Huntington Beach, and opponent of desalination proposal for that City; Bill Kocher from the City Water Department. Heather Cooley from Pacific Institute and author of Desalination, With a Grain of Salt; and myself, a former electrical contractor concerned that our City was turning towards greater fossil fuel dependency in its water supply.

After the forum a man introduced himself to me as James (Jan) Bentley, retired Superintendent of Production for the City Water Department. He asked me if I had heard about the potential of water transfers between water districts. I hadn’t. He said that in the early 2000’s the City’s consultant, Carollo Engineers, had put water transfers on the short list of possible water supply measures. The transfer strategy would recharge aquifers used by neighboring districts during winter months. In the summer of dry years, the City would get water back from those aquifers. Bentley told me that the idea was dropped off the table due to concern that applying for water rights revisions would open up a Pandora’s Box of fish habitat issues. However, Bentley thought fish habitat issues could be a solvable problem, rather than a fatal flaw. He shook his head that every winter there were billions of gallons of water flowing down the San Lorenzo River out to sea while the City and its neighbors were facing serious water challenges.

Bentley didn’t know it at the time, but the County had picked up the water transfer strategy and started running with it. County Water Resources Director, John Ricker, had secured state grant funding for Kennedy/Jenks to investigate aquifer recharge strategies in the Scotts Valley Basin. Kennedy/Jenks put water transfers at the top of the list, right behind the strategy of modifying streets and impermeable surfaces to infiltrate rain water. When Ricker saw that Santa Cruz had more access to River water than Scotts Valley could consume during winter months, he added transfers with Soquel Creek Water District to the plan.

The water transfer plan is at the core of the WSAC recommendations to the City Council, along with aquifer recharge using injection wells. (Note: water transfers is also known as in lieu recharge, since neighboring districts will use transferred water in lieu of pumping their wells.)

Because refilling aquifers is less predictable than filling a reservoir behind a dam, several WSAC members wanted to include a backup strategy. The WSAC settled on recommending a backup strategy: recycled wastewater. A backup to the backup would be desalination. Study of the backup strategy would begin, but the backup would not be constructed unless the aquifer recharge strategy fails to produce the targeted yield. Before switching to the backup strategy, the Water Department would make adjustments to the primary strategy (e.g. more injection wells, or expanded treatment capacity). In the words of the WSAC Recommendations Final Draft, “Before making a choice to move away from groundwater storage, diligently explore all reasonable attempts to make the groundwater strategies work.”

Some people are nervous about the outcome of the aquifer recharge strategy. It may help to know that the aquifer recharge strategies recommended by the WSAC are successful elsewhere. The San Francisco PUC has embarked on an in lieu project with neighboring Daly City, South San Francisco and San Bruno. Their information notes, “Conjunctive use projects such as this one have been implemented by many water agencies in California and across the U.S. On a local level, several Bay Area agencies have been successfully operating groundwater storage and recovery projects for many years include the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Alameda County Water District and Zone 7 Water Agency serving Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin. In Southern California, conjunctive use and groundwater management programs have been in place since the 1950s.”

I feel so good about this outcome. If these recommendations are adopted by the City Council—and I expect that they will— the groundwater recharge strategy will provide multiple benefits to our community:

  1. It will provide sufficient storage in the aquifers for Santa Cruz to experience a historically unprecedented drought without shortages.
  2. Continuing the recharge strategy beyond the target 3 billion storage level would prepare the City to face an even worse climate change scenario.
  3. Recharging the Purisima Aquifer will ward off salt water intrusion that threatens City and Soquel Creek production wells.
  4. Recharging local aquifers protects our regional economy from shocks due to water shortages and depleted aquifers.
  5. Recharging aquifers results in increased summer flow in area streams, enhancing habitat for native fish and wildlife. This benefit is the key to expedited water rights approvals, since state and federal fisheries agencies have indicated their support of this plan.

Our whole community wins with the aquifer recharge strategy. That’s why I want to invite you to the WSAC’s reception celebrating the completion of our work.

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