Water Transfers Between Districts

ACTION STEP: The Santa Cruz Council should direct the Water Department to:

1)    Apply now for water rights permission to immediately transfer water to Soquel Creek District
2)    Enter negotiations with Soquel Creek Water District, Scotts Valley Water District and San Lorenzo Valley Water District to contract for reciprocal water exchanges.
3)    Open the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) negotiations to participation from the County and neighboring water districts in order to facilitate fisheries agency approval of a water transfer plan. The HCP process should also be public.
4)    Report on the cost and benefits of pre-treatment of turbid water and the “Lochquifer Strategy”.

The concept of water transfers is that Santa Cruz would draw San Lorenzo River water, treat it, and send it to Soquel Creek Water District and Scotts Valley Water District in winter months when there is more than enough water in the river to satisfy fish reproduction requirements. Those districts, which are 100% dependent on groundwater, would be able to reduce their pumping of groundwater during the winter, allowing the aquifer to recharge.

From the point of view of Santa Cruz, water transfers is a water storage strategy. A portion of the water that Santa Cruz sends to neighboring districts would come back to Santa Cruz during the summer in drought years.

Water transfers is also a habitat restoration strategy, since replenished aquifers discharge more water into the streams in the watershed.

This concept has been studied for over 30 years. In 1981 the City of Santa Cruz entered into a legal agreement with the Soquel Creek Water District for the purpose of selling water to the District. A series of engineering studies since that time have recommended water transfers as a way to redress aquifer overdraft and aid Santa Cruz during drought years:

Kennedy/Jencks, No. County Water Master Plan (1985):
“The interties would enable agencies with surplus supplies to provide water to agencies facing water shortages.”

Leedshill-Herkenhoff, Santa Cruz Water Master Plan, (1989):
“A conjunctive use intertie program with Scotts Valley Water District is proposed.”

Carollo Engineers, Alternative Water Supply Study (2000)
“Limited use of the wells by the Soquel Creek Water District during winter periods – when supply could be augmented by the City – should reduce the stress on the aquifer and enhance natural recharge.”

The strategy of water transfers was ultimately rejected in the process leading to Santa Cruz’s Integrated Water Plan (2003), due to concerns that opening a water rights application to enable the transfer would leave the City vulnerable to demands by state and federal fisheries agencies to reduce its diversion of water from area streams.  Although the City abandoned the water transfer strategy, City fears about fishery agency demands came to pass.

County Water Resources Director, John Ricker, was not daunted by the need to get water rights permits, and he revived the strategy of water transfers between Scotts Valley and Santa Cruz. Using state grant money, the County commissioned Kennedy/Jenks Engineering to study recharge of the Santa Margarita Aquifer below the San Lorenzo River watershed. The Kennedy/Jenks study recommended tapping San Lorenzo River flows in winter months to supply the Scotts Valley District with potable water, as well as directly recharge the aquifer by sending river water to the abandoned Hanson Quarry on Mt. Hermon Rd. The study is available at http://scceh.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=LysD1p6EjgM%3D&tabid=1690  Kennedy/Jenks describes the concept of aquifer recharge as “water banking”, saying that Santa Cruz “should be able to purchase the banked groundwater during periods of drought”.

As the quantities of river water available in the winter became clearer, John Ricker noticed that the entire potable water needs of Scotts Valley could be supplied, with water to spare. Ricker then included in his plan a transfer of river water to Soquel Creek Water District. In February, 2013, Ricker estimated that the amount of water available to Soquel Creek District with current infrastructure is 340 acre feet per year—mainly constrained by the lack of inter-connecting pipes within Soquel Creek District itself. With improved infrastructure, the estimate is 660-800 acre-feet per year. (The District’s goal is reducing its pumping by 1100 acre feet from 2011 levels.)
An important requirement of the water transfer strategy, according to Ricker’s work plan, is that “future demands in targeted service areas will not increase”. Soquel Creek District already has a plan to reduce their water demand by 2030, in spite of whatever growth may occur. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, anticipates a 9% net increase in water demand by 2030. Santa Cruz would have to achieve net water neutrality in order to participate in the County plan.

Bill Kocher, retired Santa Cruz Water Director, was skeptical that sharing water with Soquel Creek District would result in any water returning to Santa Cruz. His perspective is echoed in the draft EIR for the desal project, “The length of time to effect a water rights change (10 to 20 years), coupled with the length of time it would take the basin to recover (at least 20 years), means the City would receive little to no benefit from such an exchange any time in the foreseeable future.”

However, the County work plan for water transfers anticipates that transfers could take place “immediately”. The County work plan calls for “a short term urgent transfer permit to immediately begin transferring treated water from Santa Cruz to Soquel using existing infrastructure”.

In their letter to the City Council of October, 2011, the Board of Soquel Creek Water District indicated that transferring water back to Santa Cruz is not conditional on recovery of the basin. They know such a condition would be the kiss of death for this strategy. Their letter states, “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.” The Board knows that receiving river water every winter and transferring some water back to Santa Cruz once in 6.5 years (the frequency of critically dry years) would be a net gain for the aquifer.

Fisheries Agencies Support Water Transfers
The Water Department opinion that water transfers take 20 years to approve is based on Santa Cruz’s experience with attempting to modify water rights on Newell Creek and Felton Diversion. What is not understood about those examples is that Santa Cruz water rights applications in those instances have been protested by state and federal fisheries agencies. Those protests will not be resolved until Santa Cruz develops a Habitat Conservation Plan. Since Santa Cruz has taken 11 years and counting to develop a HCP, it is understandable that City water rights applications have taken so long for approval.
A regional water transfer plan (also called “conjunctive use”) that has fisheries agencies support should take much less time to secure water rights permission. The National Marine Fisheries Service has expressed their support for such a regional conjunctive use program in their comment letter on the desal EIR:
“A comprehensive approach to water use and conservation in central Santa Cruz County (as currently being investigated by the County of Santa Cruz through their Conjunctive Use Program) will result in a project that both improves water supply and promotes recovery of listed salmonids over a much larger area than currently proposed in the City’s draft Habitat Conservation Plan.”

Habitat Conservation Plan Process Should Be Opened Up
Although the fisheries agencies support a regional water transfer plan, Santa Cruz has not brought discussion of such a plan into their development of a Habitat Conservation Plan. For this reason the process should be opened up to public input, and the negotiations on the an HCP that includes a transfer plan should include representatives from the County, Scotts Valley Water District, San Lorenzo Valley Water District, and Soquel Creek Water District.

Turbid Water Treatment

During normal winters there are many days in which the City relies on Loch Lomond water because the river water is too muddy to treat.  In winter 2010, for example, no water was drawn from the river for 40 days during a four month period. There is an enormous amount of water flowing out to sea during these periods with no capacity to treat it. The dEIR on the desal project reports that pre-treatment of turbid water could reduce Santa Cruz’s worst case drought shortfall by 5 percentage points.
Even more significantly, turbid water treatment would increase the number of days in which neighboring districts could use river water. This increase in available water for neighboring districts means additional capacity of those districts to transfer well water to Santa Cruz in drought periods.

The Lochquifer Strategy

Retired engineer, Jerry Paul, has found a way to increase the potential of the County’s water transfer plan. Paul recommends extending the four month winter season for water transfers from Santa Cruz to neighboring districts by increasing use of Loch Lomond Reservoir. Loch Lomond is the City’s only storage facility. Currently the City strives to keep a high level of water in the lake during the dry season in case the next year is critically dry.
As a result of keeping the lake at 80% or 90% capacity at the end of the dry season, the reservoir is too full to capture millions of gallons of normal winter runoff that currently spills over the dam. If the neighboring districts would supplement the City’s water supply during drought, the City could afford to use more Loch Lomond water during normal years. And millions of gallons of water could be captured by the lake in normal winters.

To further investigate the Lochquifer strategy, there needs to be a study of how much water could come back to Santa Cruz from neighboring districts during drought, whether new wells would need to be drilled to supply that water, etc.

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2 Responses to Water Transfers Between Districts

  1. Barbara Riverwoman says:

    Fascinating description of possibilities! Thanks to Desal Alternatives for trailblazing this environmentally friendly path forward. I hope the City Council studies it carefully. Might the City Council swallow its pride for a moment and publicly acknowledge the leadership provided by Desal Alternatives??!! This struggle against the desal plant is such a great example of informed citizen action.

  2. Mary Tsalis says:

    The description of transfer, of water between water districts, turbid water treatment during the winter, and the Lochquifer and recharging aquifers is an elegant solution to future water shortages in North-western Santa Cruz County. John Ricker is a golden resource for doing the needed research and communication leg-work to help us solve our water problems. Why would anyone want to spend far greater resources of money, effort and energy use to move forward on a desal-plan when we have this valuable plan for usage of existing water supplies that when instituted would build up water reserves.

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