In the News

In desal's absence, Soquel Creek district looks at rationing

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel 1/8/14

CAPITOLA -- The Soquel Creek Water District board on Tuesday re-examined the possibility of enacting mandatory rationing to reduce groundwater pumping for at least 20 years, a plan that could double customer rates.

The board approved rationing in March 2013 as a backup alternative if a joint seawater desalination project with the city of Santa Cruz is not approved. The plan called for cutting water use 35 percent and enacting a moratorium on new hookups to restore an overdrafted groundwater basin.

But the board took a closer look Tuesday at how to structure a rationing program, including installing high-efficiency devices, putting customers on a water budget, enhancing rebates, revising commercial and industrial rate schedules. The board unanimously approved the concept of a phased approach to start immediately with greater conservation and eventually mandated cutbacks, with specifics to be hammered out later.

"The prudent course is to begin now," board member Rick Meyer said, noting that any supplemental supply is years away.

Adele Gardner, a district customer who lives in Aptos, said the enforced conservation will get people's attention.

"If we don't have an alternative water source, we don't have a water source," she said of aquifers threatened by saltwater intrusion.

Customers have reduced use from an average of 95 gallons per person per day in 1995 to 68 gallons during the economic recession in 2010. But without a new supply the district needs the figure to be 53 gallons.

Customers increased use 5 percent from May to October 2012 when the district asked customers to cut 5 percent. During the same period in 2013, when a 15 percent reduction was sought, customers cut back only 0.5 percent.

The cost of rationing, at $117 million by early estimates, would be higher than Soquel Creek's share of the $130 million desal project. Customers would have to replace revenue lost by providing 35 percent less water and funding direct installations, rebates and community outreach.

County Supervisor Zach Friend, who represents a large swatch of district customers, urged a deeper look at how rate increases will affect small businesses and home values.

"This is a political will problem," he said. "It will take a willingness of the entire basin to get together to make a solution."

Since September, a month after Santa Cruz officials announced a "reset" in its water supply planning, the district has explored alternatives, including a Moss Landing-based regional desal plan and surface water transfers with other agencies. In coming months, the board will review water recycling, offsets for increased demand and a moratorium.

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