In the News

Water director: Rationing could cost Santa Cruz $3M-$4M
City leaders asked to fund water reduction plan through October

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 4/7/14

Despite significant rainfall during the past two months, water officials will ask city leaders this week to stick with drought-driven rationing set to start May 1 — a plan expected to cost Santa Cruz from $3 million to $4 million.

Water Director Rosemary Menard said losses in revenue from selling customers less water — under a mandate backed by high penalty fees — could exceed $2 million. The administrative costs to implement rationing — including public outreach, enforcement and adjustments in water treatment — are at least $1 million.

Menard said the Water Department will drain an existing rate stabilization fund to address the revenue gap but plans to ask the City Council on Tuesday for permission to fill 15 new full-time, temporary positions and undertake other expenses to manage the water shortage during the next six months, after which the rainy season begins anew.

The seasonal rainfall total improved from 8 percent of normal at the end of January to 43 percent of normal as of April 1 largely due to precipitation that exceeded the long-term average for February and nearly hit the mark in March. The Loch Lomond Reservoir, the city's largest water storage facility, grew slightly, reaching 68 percent of capacity.

But Menard cautions that low flows in the San Lorenzo River — which are mirroring a historic 1976-77 drought — and the unpredictable summer weather and accompanying water demand could further jeopardize supply for 92,000 people from the North Coast to Live Oak.

With the river and North Coast streams under flow restrictions for fish habitat, city water officials hope to draw down the reservoir no further than 47 percent of capacity during the high-demand period of May to October. Without rationing, the lake could drop to 33 percent by the beginning of the next rainy season, according to the city.

"We have to be extremely conservative," Menard said. "The probability is low of having another bad year, but the consequences of running out of water are catastrophic."

After joining a discussion Friday with city officials and state regulators to allow more diversion during the drought, National Marine Fisheries biologist Jonathan Ambrose said healthy flows are needed in the river in coming weeks while smolt migrate to the ocean. However, he said, regulators could ease restrictions this summer.

"We asked (the city) to evaluate the reservoir storage and look to see what they can do for us," Ambrose said while acknowledging the importance of water for health and safety needs. "This is the most difficult year for any of us managing the fishery. There are more people living in Santa Cruz than in 1977 and yet we have listed specifies."


In addition to hearing the final supply outlook for this season, the city's Water Commission on Monday will continue developing a long-term conservation strategy and consider a request from staff to stand behind February's declaration of a water shortage emergency, which triggered the rationing program. Urging customers to sharply reduce irrigation or increase indoor conservation, the department has set household water budgets to go into effect May 1, as well as penalty fees for exceeding those limits.

The council on Tuesday will consider the department's request to spend $700,000 through June 30 on implementing the rationing program and another $333,000 for July to October. Menard said 40 percent of the initial funding will come from shifting money previously set aside for administrative projects, including reconfiguring office equipment.

Menard said the department, funded entirely by ratepayers, needs to hire four office workers and two field staff to handle an increase in customer questions and requests. According to her budget, there also needs to be two outreach employees to make public presentations and conduct water audits, two people to enforce restrictions and respond to complaints of wasted water, two coordinators to handle appeals of violations and two additional meter technicians. There also will be increased costs for treating turbid storm water and hiring an additional mechanic for maintenance at the treatment plant, she said.

Water managers also will ask the council to spend up to $350,000 for Stratus Consulting, a firm based in Boulder, Colo., to perform technical analysis for the nascent Water Supply Advisory Committee during the next year. Reacting to growing political pressure, the council formed the 14-member citizens group — which is separate than the appointed Water Commission — late last year after suspending pursuit of seawater desalination that has dominated supply planning for a decade.

The council has already approved $280,000 for a San Francisco-based consultant to facilitate the group. The funding for both consultants will come from money once set aside for desalination, Menard said.

Santa Cruz City Council

What: Approval for budget for rationing program, consultant for Water Supply Advisory Committee

When: 2:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Council Chamber, 809 Center St.


Santa Cruz Water Commission

What: Discussion of Santa Cruz's Long-Term Water Conservation Plan; final Water Supply Outlook for 2014

When: 5 p.m., public workshop on conservation plan; 7 p.m., conservation plan deliberation and supply outlook discussion

Where: Tony Hill Room, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. (5 p.m. meeting); Council Chamber, 809 Center St. (7 p.m. meeting)


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