In the News

Water Activists Ready for Desal Debate

By Jacob Pierce
Santa Cruz Weekly, 4/12/11

Jan Bentley remembers it like it was yesterday—closing down the Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant on Graham Hill Road after sunset because Santa Cruz’s water system had reached capacity. On wet winter nights during the 1990s, Santa Cruz’s now-retired water production superintendent says he used tell his co-workers, “It would be great if we could find a place to send a couple million gallons.”

The idea of sending surplus water somewhere else during the rainy season, then being able to borrow it back during drought periods, has won attention as a possible solution to Santa Cruz County’s water woes, according to Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, the grassroots group spearheaded by desalination plant opponents Rick Longinotti and Bentley. City officials and desal supporters say the water sharing plan isn’t simple and could take decades to approve, whereas desalination could be running by 2016.

Water sharing would bring together the strengths of two neighboring water districts: the enormous winter river flows that shrink to trickles during the summer, putting the squeeze on the Santa Cruz Water Department; and Soquel Creek Water District’s large groundwater aquifers, which are being sucked dry faster than they can be replenished. During wet seasons, Santa Cruz would pump water to Soquel Creek’s wells for storage. Soquel could send the supply back to Santa Cruz during arid summers and drought-like conditions, perhaps once every four to seven years.

“This is a regional problem,” says Bentley. “This is two neighboring [areas] that both have a water shortage. And Santa Cruz could easily help Soquel with the water they have.”

As opponents and supporters of the desalination plant prepare to debate each other tomorrow night in a League of Women Voters-sponsored event at First Congregational Church, Longinotti and Bentley will likely promote the water sharing deal as one of two major alternatives to the desal facility, the other being increased conservation.

Skeptics like former Santa Cruz mayor Mike Rotkin, who will take the pro-desal position in tomorrow’s debate, and Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher, say the plan shows promise but suffers from serious roadblocks in the short term. At a recent city council meeting, Kocher said it could take 15-20 years before Santa Cruz is able to get a water rights change approved to send water to Soquel Creek so that the district can start resting its wells—and another 15-20 years before Soquel Creek is able to send water back to Santa Cruz.

Laura Brown, Soquel Creek Water District’s general manager, says she has no idea how many years it would take to re-charge her district’s parched aquifers and return the favor to Santa Cruz. “We’re already in overdraft,” says Brown. “If you’re bank account’s already overdrawn, you can’t spend any more money.”


Fishing for Complications
To complicate the discussion, time is of the essence for Santa Cruz to increase its water supply or somehow slash demand. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Santa Cruz’s water use habits are violating the Endangered Species Act by squeezing vulnerable fish out of their homes.

In order to protect the habitats of the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout and comply with federal law, Santa Cruz must stop over-drawing water from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams, which currently supply 75 percent of the city’s water. The rivers and streams are home to a handful of other endangered and threatened species like the tidewater goby and the red-legged frog.

NOAA has generally supported a Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek desalination plant, but NOAA fisheries Central Coast supervisor Joyce Ambrosius says a water sharing plan sounds plausible too.

“That might work,” says Ambrosius. “But you have to make sure that the other water agency [at Soquel Creek] that’s sharing the water is also not depleting streams in their area to share it with, let’s just say, the City of Santa Cruz.”

Longinotti of Desal Alternatives says Santa Cruz, which accepted an award last year for best water conservation in the state, can protect endangered fish by getting even better at saving water.

Santa Cruz water conservation manager Toby Goddard, who will argue for the desalination plant at tomorrow’s debate, has overseen the installation of water saving toilets that use just .8 gallons of water per flush and washing machines that use just 16 gallons per load. Longinotti says these techniques helped the city cut water demand an impressive 35 percent from a projected demand of 4.6 billion gallons for 2010. He says smarter planning, more low-flow toilets and shorter showers could yield even greater water savings.

Ambrosius fears that won’t be enough to protect the coho and steelhead. “I think Santa Cruz is doing a pretty good job on conserving water already,” she says. “As you go through years, you get to a point where you just can’t conserve anymore. I think conserving is a really good idea, but I don’t think just conserving is going to take care of the lack of water that the city is facing right now.”

DESALINATION VS. ALTERNATIVES: A SUBJECT FOR DEBATE is Thursday, April 14 at 7pm at the First Congregational Church, 900 High St, Santa Cruz.

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