History of Poor Decisions

How We Got in this Mess: Santa Cruz

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In the companion article, I related the story of how Soquel Creek Water District made a decision thirty years ago that led to over-drafting the aquifers and the threat of salt-water pollution of their groundwater. In 1979 that the US Geological Survey told the District that the annual sustainable groundwater yield was 4000 acre feet. Shortly thereafter the District decided to dismiss the USGS estimate in favor of an estimate by a new consultant who told the District that the sustainable yield was a whopping 12,000-13,000  acre-ft./yr.  That estimate turned out to be an illusion. The current Board of the District is trying to cope with the District’s 20 year state of denial in which growth in water demand was left unchecked. The Board’s goal is to reduce District pumping from the current 4000 acre-ft/yr to 2,900 acre-ft/yr, so that over the next 20 years groundwater may be restored to levels that ward off saltwater intrusion.

Santa Cruz has similarly ignored the signs that our water use is unsustainable. And since our City seems ready to allow the demand for water grow by 15% by 2030 (UCSC growth represents a third of that growth), we’re still in denial. State and federal fisheries agencies are giving us a wake up call. If we heed the call we’ll adopt water conservation measures to restore fish habitat, along with a water-neutral policy for growth.

Santa Cruz 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. And given the fisheries agencies’ response to the City’s habitat proposals, that estimate appears unrealistic. In 2011, nine years after the NMFS threatened legal action against the City, the City produced a Conservation Strategy that the fisheries agencies have found unacceptable. “National Marine Fisheries Service does not agree with the current conservation flows proposed by the City. We believe they are inadequate to both conserve and recover these species.”

State Department of Fish & Game: “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.”

Fish & Game’s statement is a blueprint for the City to resolve its habitat problem. First the City must “minimize the impacts of current operations”. There are two ways to accomplish that: changing the way the City operates its water supply (e.g. greater use of Loch Lomond in lieu of stream water) and reducing demand through conservation. The Water Department has adopted the former, but has not proposed a set of conservation measures to reduce water demand to meet fish habitat needs. The City’s Water Conservation Planwas adopted in 2000 and was meant “to provide direction to the City of Santa Cruz for its water conservation efforts over the next ten years”. The City needs an updated Conservation Plan, or at least new efforts such as the following:

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 has been available in Soquel Creek Water District since 2003.)
Switching dedicated landscape accounts and golf courses from the low Block 2 billing rates to rates that are tied to water budgets.
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.

Next the Department of Fish & Game calls for “evaluating how much water is available for build out without additional sources”.  That’s what the City should have gotten when it paid its consultant for two Water Supply Assessments. Apparently, those studies are useless, since they don’t account for fish habitat flows. Finally, Fish & Game wants the City to “ensure that expansion does not occur without conservation measures or development of additional sources”. That means no UCSC expansion or other growth in the City’s water demand without a desal plant (or other new source) or a conservation program that offsets growth (water-neutral growth).

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 subsidize lawn-replacement 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 lawn replacement rebates and lots more to get there). Once that has been achieved, a water neutral policy for new growth can be employed. If Lane and Coonerty prevail at LAFCO, and 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.

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…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.”

Is the outlook for desalination optimistic? If not, would you say it’s not all right to accept a higher level of drought risk?

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