In the News

Santa Cruz County Grand Jury sounds alarm on water woes
'Disaster' looming, urges second look at desal plant

By Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/18/14

SANTA CRUZ — A civil grand jury Tuesday warned that an environmental disaster is looming if major county water suppliers don't identify new sources, stressing that time is running out for a solution.

The 19-member Santa Cruz County civilian oversight body also said that while conservation isn't enough to prevent the calamity and multiple avenues should be explored, a desalination plant is the only single solution immune to climate change and droughts such as the one currently ravaging California.

"We're hoping that the report will help (political leaders) see that of the alternatives, that is probably the best one," foreperson Nell Griscom said. "It's then up to them, and it's up the citizens."

The city of Santa Cruz is under mandatory water rationing, and Soquel Creek Water District has been pumping an unsustainable amount of groundwater, leading to seawater intrusion in several coastal wells. Their problems are emblematic of a county struggling with water issues on several fronts.

The two agencies explored a joint Westside desalination plant, but ran into opposition from Santa Cruz neighbors. Soquel Creek continues to look for a new water source, while the city started a public process to take input on the water situation.

"We felt that the city of Santa Cruz did not adequately inform its citizens of the need for water alternatives, nor did it adequately respond to the concerns of its citizens," Griscom said.

In one example, the grand jury pointed out that the city released plant infrastructure maps that made it seem neighborhood impacts were greater than likely. The grand jury said the plant should be put to voters during the earliest available general election, while also noting that the prior effort was racked by infighting.

"Public outreach has not been done well. We butt heads behind the scenes," said one unnamed official in the report. "We need to respond to people, but the city (of Santa Cruz) says we need to be quiet and let it pass."

Santa Cruz Water Department Director Rosemary Menard, who took over after desal was shelved, said the city is reaching out to the community through monthly meetings of a 14-member Water Supply Advisory Committee. The city draws most of its water from surface streams, and Menard said the urgency of water supply issues varies from district to district.

"That's not a new question here. It's a question that's important, but it's not a crisis," Menard said. "It's timely, but if it doesn't get solved by the end of the year, it's not the end of the world."

The grand jury also recommended exploring interagency water transfers and recycled water, though it pointed out the latter cannot be used for drinking and requires separate pipes. But it was clear about its preferred option, while Menard disputed that desal is the only solution.

"There are a lot of people who would disagree with that quite vehemently," she said.

The group Desal Alternatives spearheaded local opposition to the plant. In a statement, the group said the grand jury failed to understand local skepticism of the project, adding that it was well-informed and grounded in good science.

The electricity needed to run the plant is a major concern in a city that could be affected by sea level rise, the group said.

"The grand jury report misses the irony in its recommendation of desalination as a response to climate change's impact on regional water supplies," said co-chair Bruce Van Allen, a City Council candidate.

Noting that severe and lasting damage to overdrafted local aquifers from seawater intrusion was imminent, the grand jury urged the city to finish a draft environmental impact report on desal by the end of the year, saying it included valuable information regardless of whether the city pursues desalination.

Menard said the EIR is on hold while the citizen committee does its work. Moving forward would send a mixed message to the community, she said.

"No decision has been made about what to do about it," Menard. "It's not on the table, it's not off the table."

Soquel Creek general manager Kim Adamson was pleased the grand jury recognized her agency's efforts to communicate the urgency of the situation to customers. Without an alternative supply, the district would be forced to cut water use up to 35 percent over 20 years.

"We don't know how much time we have, but we do know that we have seawater intrusion," Adamson said.

The district is looking for new supplies as an alternative to the Westside plant, but Adamson said Soquel Creek could still work with Santa Cruz if that project moves forward. About 70 percent of Soquel Creek customers favor desalination, according to a recent district survey.

The grand jury also urged the formation of a basin replenishment district to help funnel water back into the Purisima aquifer, which runs under the Santa Cruz and Mid-County areas.

Per capita, Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water customers are in the top ranks of conservers statewide, leaving little room for improvement.

"They're already conserving quite a bit and there's only so much you can do with that, especially if more people come into the county with the same amount of water," Griscom said.

The grand jury also said that while there is promise in a proposed Moss Landing-based DeepWater Desalination plant — which has a signed agreement for 25 megawatts of solar power — there are so many Central Coast communities eyeing its 25,000 acre-feet as a possible water source that demand could exceed capacity.


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