The EIR for the Integrated Water Plan invoked “public health and safety” to justify the increased fossil fuel use of using desalination. We ask, “Are health and safety really at stake?” We are dubious when a strategy that would degrade the environment for future generations is presented as necessary for public health. Our conviction is that when there is an apparent conflict between the needs of the present and the needs of future generations, we need to take a closer look at how we define our present needs.
Just what is the effect on health and safety of a worst-case drought? The language of Water Department documents evokes a sense of emergency. The Water Shortage Contingency Plan (2009) categorizes five stages of drought severity. “Stage 3” is a drought event requiring system-wide peak-season curtailment of 25%. The Plan states, “A Stage 3 water shortage constitutes an emergency situation.” Yet in a Stage 3 drought, golf courses would get half of their normal year allocation.
If it were to occur now, the City claims that a worst-case drought would require peak season curtailment of 39% —or 46% depending on which City document you read. But those estimates have not taken into account the extraordinary drop in water demand from previous levels. According to the Integrated Water Plan (2003), water demand in 2010 was projected to be 4.8 billion gallons. Actual water demand, 3.6 billion gallons in 2008. It was lower than that in 2009 and 2010. Actual demand for 2008 was only 6.5% above 3.36 billion gallons that the Integrated Water Plan’s Table II-1 states is the amount the City can produce in a worst-year drought. This unanticipated level of conservation has resulted in Loch Lomond reservoir levels of over 90% at the end of the dry season in each of the last two years.
We are urging the Water Department to revise the Integrated Water Plan, and re-calculate its estimate of worst-case drought curtailments. This re-calculation is essential if the public is to be fully informed on the arguments regarding desalination.
What also needs to be clear to the public is that a worst-case drought has happened only once in the 89 years that records have been kept. According to the City, “Extreme drought is a statistically rare event”. All other drought events would require peak-season curtailments of under 20% (Integrated Water Plan Table II-4). The public has already shown their willingness to conserve in drought curtailments of under 20%. In fact, the study that the Water Department conducted in preparation for its Integrated Water Plan (2003) indicated that residential users were willing to cut back up to 25% in the event of drought. This means that the only drought for which the public indicated a need for a new water source is expected to happen once in several generations (IWP Table II-4 estimates it occuring once in 59 years).
The City has other options besides building a desal plant for a one in fifty-nine year event. The most immediate measure would be to promote an increase in summer conservation so that Loch Lomond Reservoir has a high level of water at the end of the dry season. The second immediate measure would be to require new development to result in no net increase in water demand. See Santa Cruz Drought Security. A third measure that is longer-term is to collaborate with neighboring districts on exchanging water, so that Santa Cruz would receive well water during droughts. See Regional Water Swap.