How Much Is Enough?

“We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of our time, How much is enough?” – Wendell Berry

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We don’t know how much money has been committed under contract on desalination studies—probably close to $20 million. (We know that $12.5 million has already been spent.)  It’s apparently not enough, says the Water Department.  Continue reading

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Decision Day for City Council

City Council meeting: Tuesday, November 22, 7pm Email:

On several occasions members of the Santa Cruz City Council have expressed the sentiment that desalination should be a last resort. Other strategies to make better use of existing resources should be employed first. On Tuesday at 7pm, the Council has the opportunity to put that intention into practice. To do so they will need to put the brakes on desal spending and direct their Water Department to implement alternatives first.

The Water Department is asking the City Council for more money for the desal project. This time it’s a half million for a consultant to guide the permitting process for the desal project. According to Bill Kocher, head of the Water Department, $12.5 million in City, Soquel Creek Water District and state taxpayer money has already been spent on the desal project. It’s time for the Council to draw the line. Money for the permitting process should wait until a decision has been made whether to approve the project. And that decision will happen after an Environmental Impact Report is complete.

The second decision Council will make on Tuesday is whether to include three key strategies in the City’s 5-year Urban Water Management Plan. Even people who are committed to the desalination project should have no objection to Continue reading

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Fish Habitat & Desalination

On November 22 the City Council has a chance to choose a direction in how it plans to cope with a mandate to reduce diversion of water from area streams in order to allow more ample stream flows needed for coho and steelhead salmon. On that day the Council will conduct a hearing on the City’s 5-year Urban Water Management Plan.

The Water Department says that building a desal plant is the only way to provide better habitat for endangered fish. SC Desal Alternatives has another view. We point out that setting a goal to freeze water consumption at 2010 levels would allow stream flows in normal years that meet “Tier 3″ standards, defined by the City as “flows that most closely approximate fisheries agency goals”.

The Water Department’s response to our advocacy of freezing demand at 2010 levels is that we are “overly optimistic”. The Water Department expects demand to immediately rebound by 10% from 2010 levels, and grow another 14% by 2030. These assumptions make it look like a desal plant is necessary to ward off unacceptable levels of drought-year curtailment.

Our message to the City Council is that our level of demand is a matter of policy, not a factor outside of our control. If Soquel Creek can set a policy to reduce water demand by 8% between 2015 and 2030, then surely Santa Cruz can set a policy to freeze demand at 2010 levels.

Freezing demand at 2010 levels would require two things: a campaign to achieve this goal among existing water users, and a program to offset growth in demand from new development, such as is in effect in Soquel Creek Water District. In allowing growth in water demand to erode our drought security, the Water Department is out of step with our County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) that set a policy that water demand must not be allowed to grow in areas of overdrafted aquifers and streams.

For a more detailed discussion of the how Santa Cruz citizens can out-perform desalination in providing fish habitat as well as drought security, continue reading.

The Water Department makes two assumptions in their argument for desalination: rebound and further growth. Rebound, they say, is inevitable after every period of dry years in which people change their water use behavior. After the dry years of 2007, 2008, 2009, people are going to go back to their old water-carefree ways, goes the logic.

We don’t disagree that this is what has happened in the past. We just think we can’t afford to repeat the past. And so far we’re not. Since 2009, Santa Cruz water users are proving that they aren’t getting careless. In 2010 water demand has dropped even from 2009 levels in which there were mild restrictions on landscape watering.

The second assumption is growth in water demand of 500 million gallons between now and 2030, above and beyond the 10% rebound level. Ironically, this amount of growth wipes out any gain from desalination, which in drought years is expected to provide 450 million gallons. So unless the desal plant is expanded by 2030, the fish will be worse off in drought years than they are today under this unrestrained growth policy.

In normal years freezing demand outperforms desal hands down in terms of benefit for fish. The desal plant offers negligible benefit in normal rainfall years, since the plant will only be producing water for Santa Cruz in drought years. The following table shows what water production is available  in normal rainfall years, with Tier 3 flows. It shows that there is enough water to support  2010 levels of water consumption.

Note: The Table comes from data on Tier 3 flows supplied by the Water Department. I have reduced the amount of water available from Loch Lomond by 450 million gallons, in order to assume a prudent reserve of water in the lake in case of following year drought.

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Truth Suffers, But Progress Made

There were several important positive developments at last night’s City Council study session on water issues. A truthful description of our drought risk was not one of them. Continue reading

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Nov 1: What we need to know.

The unease that many citizens feel about plans for desalination is heightened by a sense that the information needed to make an informed decision on water strategies is not currently available. Below are a list of questions that SC Desal Alternatives has submitted to the City in advance of the City Council study session on water issues, November 1st at 7pm.

You can download and print these Questions for the Water Dept. Bring them to the study session and if they don’t get answered in the Water Department’s presentation, you can go up to the podium and ask them yourself.


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City Consultant Verifies Decline in Drought Risk

There’s a lot to say about what the Water Department’s Draft Urban Water Management Plan doesn’t include, such as water-neutral development. I’ll get to that in a minute. What’s really interesting is what the Draft says about our risk of severe curtailment during drought. The dramatic drops in water demand over the last ten years, as well as anticipated reductions in our water supply due to fish habitat needs have made a drought-risk re-assessment necessary. The report reads:

In an extreme two-year drought similar to the 1976-77 event, the estimated water supply available to the City in the second year of that event, according to the updated operations model…[is] 3200 million gallons/yr under current conditions.

This is great news. If a worst-cased drought occurred now, and customer water demand stayed at 2010 levels, there would be no water shortfall. No, there’s no mistake. City water production in 2010 was 3200 mgy—coincidently the same amount as would be available in a worst-case drought.

This estimate for our worst-case drought water supply would change somewhat if the fisheries agencies require the City to adhere to “Tier 2″ stream flows for fish habitat. The City’s current proposal to the fisheries agencies is for the City revert to “Tier 1″ flows during drought years that require curtailments of over 5%. In the event the fisheries agencies require Tier 2 flows in drought years, City consultant, Gary Fiske, has calculated that peak season drought rationing of over 25% would occur just once in 73 years—so long as demand stays at current levels.

Unless City residents are willing to incur the financial and environmental costs of a desalination plant to prepare for a 1 in 73 year event, there remains only one rationale for building a desalination plant: to accommodate growth in water demand. Growth in water demand would effectively use up the last available City water source, the reservoir, making drought curtailment more severe.

Fortunately, the strategy of water-neutral development is an idea whose time has come, adopted by our County LAFCO and soon to be considered by the County Supervisors. Soquel Creek has had a water neutral development policy since 2003. That is why their Urban Water Management Plan predicts an 8% decrease in water demand between 2015 and 2030, whereas Santa Cruz’s Plan predicts a 14% increase in water demand by 2030.

Though the bell tolls for the desalination proposal, we must address the overdraft of our streams that has resulted in drastic declines in fish populations. Besides water-neutral development, there are a host of strategies that we submitted to the Water Department to reduce our water consumption and augment supply. Most of these strategies didn’t make it into the Draft, but our hope is that Water Commissioners and City Council members will act on their stated priority of implementing all feasible alternatives before considering desalination. The Water Commission meeting on Monday, October 3, 7pm at City Hall is the first opportunity to put this principle into practice.

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It’s Time for Water Neutral Growth

In Santa Cruz the streams are overdrafted, leading to a steep decline in populations of native steelhead salmon. In most of the rest of the County, aquifers are overdrafted, leading to salt water intrusion. Since our current water use limits have been reached, it makes sense to ensure that new growth doesn’t make the problem any worse.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) pioneered the implementation of water neutral growth. In the 1990′s it approved several developments on the condition that those developments have a “zero water footprint.”  Continue reading

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Plan B: The Alternative to Desalination

It’s easy to understand why the Board members of the Soquel Creek Water District would consider desalination, even though they don’t like its harmful environmental impact and its price tag. They consider it the lesser of two evils. The worse evil would be to over-pump the aquifers to the point where salt water pollutes them, making them unusable for generations.  I agree. That would be terrible.

When faced with a choice between two evils, it’s a good thing to pause to explore other  options. This is especially true in the case of desalination, because it would only be a temporary fix for Soquel Creek’s aquifer overdraft.  The world is about to leave the era of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy. As former mayor of Huntington Beach, Debbie Cook, pointed out in her talk in Santa Cruz last year, when energy prices soar, desalination plants will be abandoned because they will cost too much to operate. The abandoned desal plants in Santa Barbara and Marina are the handwriting on the wall.

Desal just postpones facing the need to live within nature’s limits. Turning to desal is like taking out one more credit card in order to continue living beyond your means. Postponing the inevitable day of reckoning only makes the return to living within your means more painful. Incurring bond debt to build a desal plant (whose cost estimate has quadrupled in the last eight years) will only make it harder for the next generation to fund conservation programs and replace aging water supply infrastructure.

The details of a Plan B are emerging from the efforts of community groups, engineers, and a former water agency manager. Click here to view the 18 page Recommendations for the City of Santa Cruz Urban Water Management Plan.  While some details are specific for the City of Santa Cruz, many of the recommendations apply to Soquel Creek District.

On July 11, we will present the recommendations to the City Water Commission.  (City Council Chambers, 7pm).  We’ll be asking the Water Department to include the recommendations in their draft of the Plan which will go to the Santa Cruz City Council as early as September. That’s when we’ll ask the City Council to put the $18 million pre-construction spending on hold and implement the alternatives in Plan B. If the City Council fails to implement Plan B and keeps spending on desalination, we’ll have recourse to a ballot initiative.

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James Fryer talk online

A coalition of groups invited environmental scientist, James Fryer, to visit Santa Cruz in May. Fryer, former manager of conservation programs for the Marin Municipal Water District, spoke on “Sustaining Our Water Future in Santa Cruz”. To view a half-hour video of the talk, click here.
Fryer recommended that the environmental and financial costs of desalination be the benchmark with which to measure other alternatives such as conservation, water recycling, and water transfers. Continue reading

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(Green) Lipstick on a Hog

This photo of Arnold Schwartzenegger showing off his hydrogen-powered Hummer wasn’t his finest hour. I’ll explain why I think so in a minute. His finest hour, in my opinion, was his backing of AB 32, a commitment to greenhouse gas reduction that is a hopeful example in a world that has been slow to respond to the threat of climate change. Continue reading

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