The Santa Cruz City Council’s passage of an ordinance to put the decision on desalination in the hands of the voters suggests that the community and City government can now move forward together to address our water challenges. The following is our attempt to initiate an agenda for such a process. The agenda articulates what we believe are common goals for all residents in the Santa Cruz water service area, followed by a list of needed information, and finally, actions that could be undertaken immediately to improve our water security. We invite our City Council to engage with us in co-creating and pursuing this agenda. You can comment on this agenda at the end of the article.
I. Common Ground
Santa Cruz needs a reliable and sustainable water supply, adequate to meet the needs of our community.
In order to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, Santa Cruz must reduce its water diversion from area streams, which will result in a significant, but still undetermined reduction in its water supply.
New water supply options (and new conservation measures) are an important way to address our water supply challenges in the context of fish habitat constraints. The priority for new water supply projects and conservation measures should be to provide an adequate water supply during drought given that’s when fish habitat constraints will be experienced most acutely. Only when our drought security is achieved, should the City consider allowing new water supply or conservation measures to be allocated to growth.
Water supply options should be evaluated on the basis of cost, environmental impact and feasibility. Feasible options that have lower cost and environmental impact are a priority.
II. Needed Information
A. Evaluating Our Current Water Supply and Drought Risk
1. The unresolved fish habitat issue makes it impossible to arrive at a solid estimate for our water supply in normal and drought conditions.
Needed process: The City needs an agreement with fisheries agencies on the amount of bypass flow necessary for fish habitat in order to evaluate the amount of water supply we have, and hence the shortfall between demand and supply.
2. Current modeling of our water shortfall includes an assumption that the City draws down Loch Lomond at the maximum legal limit of 1040 million gallons in normal years. In actual practice, that never happens.
Needed information: The modeling should include the option that draw-down of the lake in normal and single dry years should never exceed the amount that would leave less than 80% capacity in the lake on October 1.
3. Current modeling of our water shortfall assumes growth in water demand at UCSC and in the rest of the service area, when LAFCO has required that UCSC growth be water neutral.
Needed information: The modeling should include the option of zero growth in water demand at UCSC, and also the option of zero growth elsewhere in the system.
4. Santa Cruz currently has a policy that summer curtailment in a worst-case drought should never exceed 15%.
Needed information: The modeling should include the option that the City Council would decide to tolerate a greater degree of curtailment during a worst-case drought. Modeling 25% and 35% curtailment would inform the decision on desalination and alternatives by showing how often a supplemental water supply would be needed under those scenarios.
B. Evaluating Water Supply Options & Conservation Opportunities
1. The ten year time frame of the City’s Water Conservation Plan (2000) has expired.
Needed information: A new plan for water conservation needs to be prepared, including estimates for water saved through a variety of conservation measures. In order to better understand who is using what amount of water, the plan should include a breakdown of each user category by how many users fall into each tier of water use.
2. The most promising strategy for additional water storage is “groundwater banking”, the replenishment of local aquifers so that the City can use additional groundwater in drought years. This strategy involves transferring surface water to neighboring districts during winter months and receiving water back from these districts during drought. The Water Department has claimed various water rights obstacles impede this strategy. The Water Department has also expressed doubts as to the ability of Soquel Creek Water District to send water to Santa Cruz during droughts.
Needed process: The City needs to hold a public meeting with representatives from Scotts Valley, San Lorenzo Valley and Soquel Creek Water Districts, as well as fisheries agency representatives in order to clarify these issues.
3. In addition to strategies studied by Kennedy/Jenks in the Conjunctive Use and Aquifer Recharge Project, Phase 1 (2011), the City needs to update the cost and feasibility estimates for direct groundwater recharge at Beltz wells using treated water during winter months (last studied in 1999 by Fugro), and the “Optimizing Use of Existing Resources” option that was recommended by Carollo Engineers in 2000.
C. Evaluating Costs
1. Needed information: A full explanation of the costs of desalination: pre-construction, construction, financing, and operation, including per gallon cost, and how those costs would be born by ratepayers.
2. Needed information: Equivalent cost information for alternatives to desalination, including conservation and groundwater banking strategies. Also needed is a comparative analysis of spending on desalination versus these alternatives in terms of dollars circulated locally versus dollars leaving the area.
III. Needed Action
(These strategies can be implemented immediately, as no further study is required for their implementation.)
1. Because the City’s current tiered pricing system provides insufficient incentive for conservation in landscape irrigation, a revision in the tiered rates is needed. This would include increasing the differential between Block 2 (residential indoor) and Block 3 (outdoor use), and putting golf courses and dedicated landscape accounts from the current Block 2 to a higher tier. Dedicated landscape accounts should be given water budgets that have financial consequences for exceeding them. Landscape ordinance needs to be updated to further require drought tolerant landscaping in new commercial buildings.
2. The Council should pass an ordinance requiring low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads in all commercial and residential buildings, with the Water Dept funding the cost of fixture and installation. (Free toilet installation is available in Soquel Creek Water District)
3. Explore building code revisions to facilitate rainwater to toilet, graywater irrigation, and composting toilets. Provide significant rebates for graywater, rainwater harvesting, and composting toilet systems.
4. A water demand offset program for the entire service area (conservation measures funded by development fees).
5. In October, 2011, the Soquel Creek Water District requested that the City negotiate water transfers between agencies. The City should respond by scheduling such negotiations , so that water transfer using existing infrastructure can begin as soon as environmental review is complete. Santa Cruz should commit to sharing the cost of environmental review with Soquel Creek District.
6. Include an estimated cost for optimizing inter-district water transfers on the Capital Improvement Plan.
7. Pending the implementation of the water transfer strategy, make it City policy that in normal and single dry years the level of Loch Lomond at the end of the dry season (Oct 1) should be maintained at 80% capacity.