Fisheries Agencies Speak Out on Water for UCSC Expansion

coho swimming upstream to spawn

Santa Cruz City Council Meeting Considers Water for UCSC Expansion: Feb 28, 3pm, City Hall
LAFCO Meeting on UCSC Water Service Expansion: March 7, 9:30am, County Building, 5th floor

Santa Cruz has bumped into its water limits. No, that’s not right. We passed our water limits some time ago. That’s what the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) and California Dept. of Fish and Game (DFG) tell us. A decade has passed since NOAA Fisheries first threatened legal action against the City for its “take” of endangered Coho Salmon, and threatened Steelhead Salmon on Laguna Creek, on the coast north of town. The City has held water rights to Laguna Creek since the 19th century. In those days the State granted the City rights to divert 100% of the water in the creek. And dry up the creek the City did—until quite recently. A 2004 City report states, “During September below the diversion, the average monthly flow is 0.2 cubic feet per second.[1]” That’s little more than a trickle. Since the diversion dam on Laguna Creek is over 4 miles inland, such a rate of diversion is mortal for juvenile Steelhead and Coho salmon downstream. (To view a 20 minute video of fisheries biologist, Don Alley, describing the habitat needs of native fish in the San Lorenzo Watershed, click here)

NOAA Fisheries put their 2002 legal action against the City in abeyance so long as the City would come up with a Habitat Conservation Plan as part of an application for a permit to “take” endangered species. The City agreed to draft such a plan in what Water Department Director, Bill Kocher, calls “voluntary” compliance with NOAA Fisheries.

In August the City released its draft Habitat Conservation Strategy. And the recent fisheries agencies’ response is sobering. The DFG writes: “As written, the Conservation Strategy does not ensure adequate protection but rather allows for future expansion without requiring that new water resources or water conservation measures be implemented.”[2]

The DFG letter is not focused solely on water expansion to UCSC. The City policy is to allow water demand to grow by 500 million gallons by 2030. Approximately 40% of that growth is estimated to occur at UCSC.[3]

The DFG letter spells out that the City’s first priority should be to achieve stream flows that sustain fish, then assess whether there is water available for growth. “The Conservation Strategy should be revised to first minimize the impacts of current operations to the greatest extent feasible, then to evaluate how much water is available for further build out without additional sources while providing flows for all life history stages [of fish], and finally ensure that expansion does not occur without conservation measures or development of additional sources to maintain sufficient water for listed species habitat.”

The agencies are calling for the City to leave enough water in the streams to maintain “80% of the unimpaired Wetted Usable Area” for summer rearing of juvenile fish. This would be a dramatic change from the usual practice of drying up the streams during July-October. The fisheries agencies also call for zero diversion from the San Lorenzo River during the summer months when the sandbar at the mouth of the river closes off its passage to the ocean.[4]

The City can try to negotiate with the fisheries agencies to ease these restrictions. If the City fails to achieve less stringent restrictions, it could try to fight the legal action that the federal government would take.  However, at this point it would seem prudent for the City to ramp up conservation, prevent growth in water demand, and put the strategy of water transfers with neighboring districts on high priority.

The fisheries agencies are dubious about the City’s plans for a desalination plant to address summer water needs, first because it may never happen, “The City is proposing to meet the Tier 3 flows with a desalination plant that may or may not be constructed”.[5] Secondly, the City’s plan to allow growth in water demand by 500 million gallons/year by 2030 cancels out any gain from a desalination plant (450 million gallons). The desalination plant would have to be expanded just to keep up with growth.

LAFCO Will Decide

The fisheries agencies’ stance, that the City must first minimize its impact on streams before considering expansion, should influence our county LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) when it meets on March 7th. The Commission has already adopted a condition on UCSC growth that “The City of Santa Cruz will commit to reducing stream and river diversions to a level authorized by the federal and state resource agencies.”[6] Will LAFCO require that this condition must be met before UCSC gets any water for its expansion? That would mean that the City must settle its dispute with the fisheries agencies before UCSC could get water. SC Desal Alternatives considers this the prudent path. How can you offer more water to UCSC until you know how much water there is to offer—if any?

LAFCO has adopted another condition on UCSC expansion, requiring that UCSC growth be water-neutral. LAFCO asked the City of Santa Cruz how it plans to comply with this requirement that any new water demand on campus be offset somewhere in the City’s water service area. At the Tuesday, February 28, 3pm City Council Meeting, the City staff will present its draft plan. The plan contains a large loophole that allows UCSC’s water demand to grow to its historic peak (1997) before the University pays for conservation measures to offset growth in water demand. That means water demand on campus will grow by 39% above 2011 levels before University begins any payment.

If the City enacts a water-neutral policy for its entire service area, as the fisheries agencies want, it should not treat UCSC differently than other development. You can’t charge developers in town to offset their new water demand, while allowing UCSC a 39% grace period.

The fisheries agencies are demanding dramatic cutbacks in summer water diversions—cutbacks that will impact water customers. The City Council has not yet responded to the gravity of this challenge through new conservation measures, water neutral growth, and collaboration with neighboring districts–strategies recommended in a July 2011 report whose authors included Sherry Bryan from Ecology Action, Sarah Damron of Surfrider Foundation, and James Bentley, former City Superintendent of Water Production. While the City Council did adopt a resolution to explore water transfers with neighboring districts, it did not respond to an October 19, 2011 letter from the Soquel Creek Water District offering to “negotiate transferring some quantity of the yield we would receive from winter surplus from the San Lorenzo River back to the City during drought periods.”

At the February 28th City Council meeting, SC Desal Alternatives will propose an alternative to the staff’s draft strategy for offsetting growth in water demand at UCSC. Our proposal would ensure that the City’s first priority for its conservation programs is to afford drought protection for existing customers given the new fish habitat constraints. Once we are assured that our conservation programs can reduce our water consumption to the level that supports both fish and humans, we can consider conservation programs to offset growth. We believe we speak for the 80% of Santa Cruz voters who in 2006 approved Measure J,  that required a vote of the people before water service could be extended to UCSC. (UCSC successfully sued to invalidate Measure J on a technicality: the Council didn’t publish their meeting agenda in the newspaper in the proper time period.)

[1] Entrix Environmental Consultants, City of Santa Cruz Section 10 Program, Appendix A

[2] DFG letter to Bill Kocher, Dec 5, 2011

[3] In 2011 campus demand was 151 million gals. The projected campus demand in 2030 is 348 million gallons—Erler & Kalinowski, Water Supply Assessment for 2030 General Plan (2011)

[4] Calif Dept of Fish & Game, letter to Santa Cruz County LAFCO, Feb 9, 2012

[5] National Marine Fisheries Service, letter to Santa Cruz County LAFCO, Feb 10, 2012

[6] LAFCO meeting, Dec 7, 2012

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