In the News

Santa Cruz council to hear new approach to water management
Council also to weigh funding for homeless center

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 5/25/14

SANTA CRUZ — After just four months on the job and in the middle of a drought, Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard wants to shake things up.

During her presentation of the Water Department's proposed $25 million annual budget to the City Council on Tuesday, Menard will outline a new strategy for managing the system serving 94,000 people.

While navigating an emergency supply shortfall that has sparked rationing for residential customers, the department also is grappling with aging infrastructure and regulatory mandates to improve fish habitat.

A change in leadership — Menard replaced 27-year director Bill Kocher upon his retirement — combined with the public's growing awareness about consumption have handed Menard an opportunity to set a new course. During the next year, as a citizens' advisory committee studies how to manage existing supplies and possibly generate new ones, Menard will draft plans for better interacting with customers, making operations more efficient, and integrating efforts to expand conservation, improve water quality, support fish and realign the budget.

"People need to feel comfortable and people need to feel confident that somebody has a direction," Menard said in an interview Friday. "How do we get ourselves focused to face the current situation and the future in the strongest position?"

Menard said she plans to pursue a program that will allow customers to monitor their water use online in real time without having to physically read their meters. She said customers need to play a larger role in determining service levels and how to pay for them — and that includes the department being open to supply options rejected in the past in favor of seawater desalination at the council's direction.

"It's more about aligning what you are providing with what customers want," Menard said. "There is more of that coming."

Specific details will come later, but Menard said she approached her initial assessment using a framework called Effective Utility Management, which stemmed from work the Environmental Protection Agency's water division did with utility providers in recent years. The 10-point model stresses customer satisfaction, efficient operations, financial stability and adequate sources and quality of water.

To those ends, Menard wants to invest more in improvements at the Graham Hill Treatment Plant — last upgraded in the 1980s — in light of future cutbacks from the purer North Coast streams to protect fish while taking more water from the turbid San Lorenzo River and Loch Lomond Reservoir.

While she prefers issuing debt for such capital projects to spread the costs across generations, she said the department will nonetheless need to raise more cash, and she'll have a plan in several weeks. While costs are rising, the department's revenue from rates is going down due to a drought-driven drop in demand.

Lastly, Menard said she wants to ensure that whatever the city agrees to do with federal and state regulators for endangered fish species, there are demonstrable outcomes.

"If we are going to make a flow commitment, and I'm sure we are, it needs to be results oriented," she said, citing the need to take into account impacts on other water sources and users. "How do we make that a more complete engagement so that the commitment we make will make the whole system work?"

Mayor Lynn Robinson applauded Menard's efforts.

"She is seizing the moment and it's going to be helpful for all of us because we have some really critical decisions to make," Robinson said.

Also Tuesday, the council will hear details about the Police Department's $24.7 million budget and a proposal for $200,000 in total funding for a new partnership with the county and court system to identify chronic offenders downtown and streamline prosecution and social services.

The council also will review a proposed contract with the Homeless Services Center requiring the organization to install a security gate within 90 days in order to keep $41,000 in city funding for its day resource center and receive another $41,000 for a 2015 grant. The Harvey West-area center was supposed to put in the gate and establish an identification system last year, but funding problems and other projects caused delay.

"Not only do they have to understand how critical that is for the majority of us," Robinson said of the council, "those elements will make a big difference for that neighborhood."

Valerie Thomas, a spokeswoman for the center, said she is confident the new deadline will be met.

Santa Cruz City Council

When: 2:30 p.m. Tuesday (general business); 7 p.m. (police and water budget hearings)

Where: Council Chamber, 809 Center St.

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