History of Poor Decisions

How We Got in this Mess: Santa Cruz

In the companion article, I related the story of how Soquel Creek Water District made a decision thirty years ago that allowed growth in water demand to lead to over-pumping from the aquifers and the threat of salt-water pollution of groundwater.

Similarly, the City has  allowed growth in water demand to erode drought reserves.  A 2004 Water Department report, Adequacy of Water Supplies to Support New Development, is candid about the impact of allowing water demand to grow when the system is maxed out, “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. Up to now, the point at which this one responsibility, to protect the public health and safety of existing customers from drought impacts, outweighs the other duty, to serve new customers, has never been defined.…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.”

Santa Cruz has been overdrafting its streams for decades, with consequences for fish populations. The City used to be a tourist destination for fishing. The State Department of Fish and Game calculated that in three winter seasons from 1970-73,  anglers spent 157,000 hours fishing the San Lorenzo River. Since that time populations of steelhead have dropped precipitously and coho salmon are no longer found in the river. Fisheries biologists say that the principal factors reducing fish populations are water diversions and increased sediment washed into streams from logging operations, roads, and development.

In 1998, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) asked the City of Santa Cruz to reduce its water diversion on Laguna Creek, one of the streams on the North Coast that make up 30% of the City water supply. The City regularly dried up Laguna Creek during the dry season, taking full advantage of water rights that date back to the 19th century. According to testimony by NMFS staffer, Jon Ambrose, at the Santa Cruz City Council on Nov. 1, 2011, a lack of progress prompted the NMFS to prepare legal action against the City in 2002. The NMFS agreed to put the legal action on hold while the City prepared a habitat conservation plan that would include a commitment to reduce its diversion of water.

The City’s main water planning document, the Integrated Water Plan (IWP), was adopted by the City Council in 2005. The document acknowledged that “implementation of the Endangered Species Act and associated regulations have the potential to decrease the amount of available supply in the future”. However, the IWP estimates for future water supplies assumed that there would be no reduction in water supply due to fish habitat constraints. Again in two Water Supply Assessments, one meant to inform the decision on expanding water service to UCSC and one for the 2030 General Plan, the Water Department assumed that the City would continue water to divert stream water at historic levels. The problem with using an inflated estimate of our future water supply is that City Council decisions on UCSC growth and the 2030 General Plan depend on those estimates. Only in fall of 2011 with the Urban Water Management Plan did the Water Department estimate future water supply reductions due to fish habitat.This was three years after the City had applied to LAFCO to extend water service to an expansion of the UCSC campus.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife wants the City to “ensure that [UCSC] expansion does not occur without conservation measures or development of additional sources”.

Santa Cruz representatives to LAFCO, Mayor Don Lane and Supervisor Neal Coonerty, have justified their votes in favor of expanding water service to UCSC by pointing to the City’s new water neutral policy for the campus. Under this policy, once the University surpasses a certain level of water use, it will pay into a City fund to boost washing machine rebates throughout the service area. While Desal Alternatives has long called on the City to pass a water neutral policy (and not just for the campus), Lane and Coonerty are missing the crucial first step. The City must first achieve a lower level of water demand that is compatible with fish habitat (and it may need washer rebates and lots more to get there). Once that has been achieved, a water neutral policy for new growth can be employed. If more water is OK’ed for UCSC before we’ve reached sustainable water use, conservation measures that are needed to satisfy fish habitat constraints will go towards enabling UCSC growth. That would make it harder for the City’s water customers to meet the fisheries agency requirements—and have enough water left in Loch Lomond for drought security.

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