In the News

Bullhorn:  The Arguments for Desal

By Laura Brown and Bill Kocher

Santa Cruz Weekly, 09/09/2009

The City of Santa Cruz (City) and Soquel Creek Water District (District) have spent years planning a supplemental supply source and the objectives have been stated very clearly that any new water sources will be used for drought protection and prevention of seawater intrusion from groundwater overdraft.  Timing of the desalination project and the UCSC Long Range Development Plan has raised questions about water supply and growth and we’d like to clarify the relationship between these issues.

  • UC Santa Cruz:  The historic Settlement Agreement reached in August 2008 between the City and the University includes a provision that UCSC would be treated as any other developer with regard to its request for water supply from the City’s water system. In other words, if the City declares it has no more water for new growth in the City water service area, UCSC will not be granted expanded water service. 
  • The City needs water for drought. During normal year conditions, the City can supply water to all its customers with existing water resources. During drought conditions, with its current population, however, the city faces a 45% shortage. Clearly, a supplemental supply is needed during these water shortages. The proposed project will simply reduce the water deficit during drought conditions to a more manageable 15% — not generate additional water for more growth. Conservation alone cannot remedy the existing shortfall.
  • Overpumping in Mid-County area has endangered the groundwater basin. The District is faced with the serious condition of overdraft of the aquifers underlying the Soquel/Aptos area, currently the sole source of water supply for District customers. Each year that coastal groundwater levels remain at or below sea level, the aquifer is in danger of contamination by salt water intrusion. While aggressive conservation programs and other groundwater management measures have somewhat stabilized the situation, groundwater levels are not recovering even though the District is pumping less today than it did 20 years ago. A supplemental supply is needed to enable the District to limit groundwater pumping to a sustainable amount. 
  • Unincorporated areas are bound by local planning ordinances.  Santa Cruz County, not local water agencies, establishes land use policies in unincorporated areas. By legal mandate, water agencies must plan for future water demands based on the adopted General Plan for their jurisdiction.  The predicted water needs within the unincorporated areas served by the City and the District are consistent with the County’s 1994 General Plan and voter-approved Measure J, which limits growth to one percent per year. A supplemental supply is needed to meet today’s water use as well as projected demand within the District’s service area through 2050.
  • New development pays its fair share of the costs associated with a future water supply: Before being approved for water service, all development within both agencies’ service areas must pay substantial fees. The City’s System Development Charge and the District’s Water Capacity Fee are designed to assure that development covers the costs of its water demand impacts, including new facilities to provide expanded water supplies. Water rates charged to existing customers are not subsidizing new development.

The proposed desalination project will be used as a supplemental source during droughts and to restore overdrafted aquifers. It is not designed, or intended, to accommodate UCSC growth or higher densities than current land use zoning. The joint City/District Task Force of elected officials will continue to discuss and evaluate the relevant issues as they relate to providing an adequate and sustainable water supply for our customers.

Laura Brown is general manager of the Soquel Creek Water District.

Bill Kocher directs the Santa Cruz Water Department.

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