Dear City Council Members,
Thank you for the opportunity for input on the Draft General Plan. I would like to recommend some revisions in the Draft in order to better protect the existing customers of the City of Santa Cruz Water Department from the increased severity of drought curtailment that will result from growth in water demand. My main argument is that the City has not proposed effective mitigations to offset the existing harm to fish species let alone mitigations to offset growth anticipated by the 2030 General Plan.
Santa Cruz could implement mitigation measures similar to the Soquel Creek Water District, which has had a water demand offset program since 2003 that fully achieves water neutral growth. The Soquel Creek Water District is moving beyond water-neutral growth. Their Urban Water Management Plan aims for a reduction in water demand between 2015 and 2030 of 11%. In contrast the City plans to allow annual growth in water demand of up to 500 million gallons by 2030, or 14% more than current water demand.
In contrast to the General Plan’s allowance of 14% growth in water demand, the City’s Final Climate Action Plan calls for reduction in total water use: “Continue to reduce per capita and total water use within the Santa Cruz service area”. The General Plan needs to be made consistent with the Climate Action Plan.
Growth’s Impact on Drought Security
The City Water Department has long acknowledged that growth in water demand has an negative effect on existing customers. A 2004 Water Department report titled, Adequacy of Water Supplies to Support New Development states, “Continuing to provide water to new customers upon request, as is the current practice, may do harm to existing customers by making the potential water shortage situation worse than it would otherwise be.” That report goes on to say, “It might be all right to accept a higher level of [drought] risk if the desalination project remains pretty much on schedule and if the outlook for success remains optimistic.” Logically, it would not be “all right to accept the higher drought risk” if the outlook for the desalination project is not optimistic. Yet that is what this General Plan would allow.
Growth Would Equal Desal Output
The growth in water demand that would result from this General Plan of 500 million gallons, is slightly more than the output of the proposed desalination plant, 455 million gallons, under the planned operation during a drought year for six months at 2.5 million gallons per day. So growth in water demand will cancel out the increased water supply of a desalination plant. Thus, the desalination plant will not improve the City’s drought security—that is, unless the plant is expanded beyond its initial capacity by 2030.
The General Plan should explain that a principal purpose of the current proposal for a 2.5 mgd desalination plant is to satisfy the increased water demand due to growth. The current draft of the General Plan indicates that the only purpose of desalination is for drought protection, “Develop a desalination plant of 2.5 mgd for drought protection [emphasis added], with the potential for incremental expansion to 4.5 mgd, if it is environmentally acceptable and financially feasible.” The City’s Integrated Water Plan that named desalination as the “preferred alternative” is more candid on the purpose of the desalination plant, “The purpose of the City of Santa Cruz Integrated Water Plan is to respond to the current drought-related crisis and plan for future growth.” The City’s 2005 Urban Water Management Plan also acknowledges that the desalination plant is proposed to accommodate growth:
In addition, it is acknowledged that it may become necessary in the future to operate the desalination facility at part of its original 2.5 mgd capacity on a year-in, year-out basis to supplement existing supplies. The timing and need for future increments will depend largely on policies regarding land use, housing, and economic development that take shape under the City’s next General Plan revision.
The growth-satisfying purpose of the desalination plant is a significant impact in itself, and should be treated as such in the EIR.
The EIR for the General Plan is based on assumptions that are inconsistent with available data. The assumption of the City’s current Urban Water Management Plan is that the City will not be required to provide stream bypass flows greater than Tier 2. The fisheries agencies are emphatic that this assumption is inadequate. The National Marine Fisheries Service writes:
“NMFS does not agree with the current conservation flows proposed by the City. We believe they are inadequate to both conserve and recover these species.”
The State Department of Fish and Game (DFG) responded to the City’s proposal, saying,
“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. 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…and finally to ensure that expansion does not occur without conservation measures or development of additional sources to maintain sufficient water for listed species habitat.”
The Department of Fish and Game response to the City’s Conservation Strategy is dated December 5, 2011. The final EIR should reflect the DFG call for limiting future expansion until the City’s violation of the Endangered Species Act is redressed. Without acknowledging the fisheries agencies’ stipulations, the final EIR’s claim that it has made “reasonable assumptions based on the best available data” is not persuasive.
More important than it’s legal obligation to make the EIR as accurate as possible is the City’s responsibility to its citizens to report that the assumptions of the Urban Water Management Plan are dramatically different than the flow requirements proposed by the fisheries agencies. The fisheries agencies point out that City government is poised to approve expansion of its water demand at a time when its water supply could be seriously diminished. Under-reporting of the seriousness of the impending water supply reduction is harmful to existing water users since they will bear the burden of increased drought curtailments and/or new water supply projects.
Finally, the City’s Guiding Principles for drafting the General Plan update includes “the sustainable use of our precious natural resources”. The reliance on assumptions that have been discredited by fisheries agencies is inconsistent with this principle.
Measures to reduce existing harm to listed species need to be implemented before mitigations are proposed to offset growth. According to the DFG, “The Conservation Strategy should be revised to first minimize the impacts of current operations” before any mitigations to offset growth. The following measures to reduce existing water demand should be proposed in the General Plan. These measures are enforceable and feasible:
1. Mandatory replacement of non-efficient toilets in all existing buildings at the City’s expense. (Free toilet replacement programs are operating in places like Soquel Creek District, Santa Rosa, etc.)
2. The City current water rate structure should be revised to discourage waste in landscape watering. Currently, dedicated landscape accounts and golf courses are charged at the low Tier 2 water rates. Such accounts should be given a water budget, enforced by water pricing, such as exists in many cities throughout the West.
3. Water transfers with neighboring districts that would allow Santa Cruz to receive well water during drought years from its neighbors, enabling increased bypass flows for fish. The General Plan EIR makes the following statement about water tranfers that is at odds with information from the Soquel Creek Water District and the County Water Resources Department:
“It may be possible, though not certain, that sometime in the future if and when the basin is restored, the Soquel Creek Water District might be able to send some amount of water back to the City in drought conditions (City of Santa Cruz Water Department, December 2011)”.
In October of 2011, the Board of the Soquel Creek Water District wrote a letter to Santa Cruz which states,
“We are familiar with the City’s water shortage during drought, and we propose adding a reciprocity component into the water transfer concept. SqCWD is willing 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.”
This letter contains no assertion that groundwater basin should first be restored before the District would send water back to Santa Cruz. Restoration of the groundwater basin could take 20 years or more, according to Soquel Creek District planning.
Santa Cruz County director of Water Resources, John Ricker, writes in the “Work Plan” for inter-district water transfers:
As feasible, provide water back to Santa Cruz during drought periods, subject to specific conditions, on an immediate limited basis, [emphasis added] with an increased potential as groundwater levels recover.
Allegations that the basin must first be restored before Santa Cruz receives any water during drought years do a disservice to this very promising strategy of collaboration between water agencies.
4. Optimize Existing Resources
This mitigation strategy was recommended by Carollo Engineers in their Alternative Water Supply Study 2000) Carollo estimated that this series of measures would result in 600 million gallons of additional supply in drought years.
The EIR for the General Plan claims that the “former estimate of 600 mgy as a potential separate alternative is no longer accurate”. However, neither the EIR nor any other City document presents any evidence to support this conclusion. If the Water Department seeks to dismiss the conclusion of Carollo Engineers, they need to justify their action.
5. Prioritize reservoir use for drought protection The City’s current policy attempts to keep water deliveries high during a first drought year, resulting in a low reservoir level at the end of the dry season. This strategy results in unacceptable levels of curtailment in a second dry year. According to the current Urban Water Management Plan only 210 million gallons of reservoir water would be available in a second critically dry year. Adopting water demand reduction goals in normal and first dry years that result in an end-of-dry-season reservoir level of 80% would allow another 450 million gallons of reservoir water to be available in the event of a second dry year.
Mitigations to offset growth
Once the above mitigations are put in place to reduce existing harm to fish species, the DFG advises the City to “then evaluate how much water is available for further build out without additional sources” and “finally ensure that expansion does not occur without conservation measures”. These conservation options can be financed through fees on new development, with the effect of making increased water demand from new development “water neutral”.
The EIR should compare the estimated future drought curtailments of the growth scenario with that of a water-neutral growth scenario, and also with a scenario that aims for reduction in water demand.
In order for the City to make a claim of overriding consideration, there must be substantial evidence in the record that the benefits outweigh the potential impacts. The impact of growth in water demand on drought year curtailment is described in the EIR, but the economic impacts of that curtailment on existing businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, is not described. If there is to be evidence for economic benefits of overriding consideration, it must be compared to the economic impact of growth in water demand enabled by the General Plan.
The City’s preferred remedy for the water shortage exacerbated by this General Plan is desalination, which will have economic, social and environmental impacts. These impacts also need to be considered in the discussion of overriding consideration, the EIR, and the General Plan.
In summary, I urge the City Council to delay consideration of this General Plan until the City will commit to the following:
- Implement measures to reduce water demand to levels that restore fish habitat without eroding present levels of drought security.
- Make an assessment of the water supply that is consistent with fish habitat constraints and availability of additional conservation measures to offset growth.
- Enact conservation measures that fully offset anticipated growth.
Thanks for considering,