LAFCO, UCSC, & Desal

Barbara Kingsolver made an observation that applies to Santa Cruz County as much as any other place, “Civilization has been slow to give up on our myth of the Earth’s infinite generosity. Rather grandly, we have overdrawn our accounts.” In our county we’ve overdrawn our water accounts—rather grandly. Stream-flow diversion has threatened native steelhead with extinction. Coho salmon are already locally extinct. And over-pumping from the aquifer has led to salt water intrusion that has made the Pajaro Valley infamous as a text-book case of “tragedy of the commons“.

Our Local Agency Formation Commission is having a hearing on February 2 at 9:30am in the Board of Supervisors chambers at 901 Ocean St. that will consider new LAFCO policies on granting water service extensions.The following is a key part of the regulations LAFCO is considering adopting:
Standard 4.1.1 In any proposal requiring water service, the Commission requires that the agency that will provide the water will need to demonstrate the availability of an adequate, reliable and sustainable supply of water.

You might think that such a recommendation would find unanimous support in a community that has learned from our overdraft of aquifers and streams. Not so. In fact the Santa Cruz City Attorney has written a sixteen page legal essay asking that LAFCO revise that language because “such a stringent showing [that a sustainable water supply is available] is extremely difficult to make at such an early stage of planning.”

The City Attorney asks that LAFCO regulations only require that the city or county in which the new development would take place “identify one or more existing or planned water sources anticipated to be available for serving such development”. If LAFCO were to adopt the City Attorney’s language, LAFCO could approve any water service extension based on just the promise that a new water supply would be developed in the future.

If the City Attorney has his way, LAFCO could approve of water service expansion to UCSC in spite of an Environmental Impact Report that concluded, “There are inadequate water supplies to serve the project under existing and future multiple dry year drought conditions.” LAFCO could approve the UCSC application based on the promise that a desal plant will come online.

Water-Neutral Development
The proposed LAFCO policies allow a development to be approved if the development results in a net reduction of water demand:
Standard 4.1.1 a. In cases where the basin is overdrafted or existing services are not sustainable, a boundary change proposal may be approved if there will be a net decrease in impacts on water resources.

This policy goes one better than “water-neutral” development that SC Desal Alternatives has promoted—it’s “water-negative”. Developers in the Capitola-Soquel-Aptos-La Selva area already know all about water-negative offsets. They offset 120% of the water demand of their new project by paying for fixture retrofits in existing buildings. As the experience of Soquel Creek Water District demonstrates, water-neutrality doesn’t mean no growth. It means no growth in water demand. And as buildings such as the 23,500 sq ft Oakes Hall at Vermont Law School demonstrate, the technology is available to catch rainwater and conserve water with remarkable results (16 gallons/day average consumption for the whole building). UCSC should be able to grow its campus in similar fashion, with highly efficient new buildings, and offsetting improvements in existing buildings. Water neutrality is an idea whose time has come. Sadly, the City Attorney’s letter to LAFCO asks that the requirement for a net decrease in water demand be deleted.

If there’s one public meeting you attend this year, let it be this one. Come and speak in favor of the next generation’s ability to use unsalty aquifers and see fish re-populate our streams!

The City Attorney wrote his letter to LAFCO without authorization from the Santa Cruz City Council, according to one Council member. Please email the City Council asking that the letter be withdrawn until Council has a chance to consider the policy of water-neutral development in a public meeting. Copy to the City Manager:

Thank you, -Rick Longinotti

Oakes Hall, Vermont Law School 23,500sq ft, 16 gallons per day water consumed

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One Response to LAFCO, UCSC, & Desal

  1. jeff kahler says:

    There is no question that conservation and capture of water alone would make a huge difference in the amount of water used by residents. The example used here is a good one though not technically water neutral, it is quite close and a giant step in the right direction. I suspect, without definative numbers to back up my suspision, a desal plant would be far more expensive to build and then to maintain than would implemneting proper water use fixtures and rain water capture throughout the area. There is an alternative to “robbing Peter to pay Paul” via desal.

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