In the News


As We See It: Another water diversion

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 7/7/12

Are streams, rivers and fish yet another diversion in the ongoing water debate over UC Santa Cruz expansion?

We'll see, but as important as fish habitat is, the latest concerns from the state Fish and Game Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service should not deter the Local Agency Formation Commission from giving final approval this morning to the water agreement between the city of Santa Cruz and UCSC.

In December, LAFCO gave preliminary approval to the city-university agreement that would extend up to 100 million more gallons of water to support UCSC expansion in an undeveloped area outside city limits. The water would represent an increase of two-thirds over the total amount UCSC used all last year.

The two agencies, however, say the city can't meet a critical condition of the preliminary approval -- that it has enough water to serve planned UCSC growth -- because it hasn't yet agreed with regulators how much to reduce diversions from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams to bolster salmon habitat. They say the city needs to provide assurances that the water supply will be adequate and reliable -- conditions at the heart of a much- debated desalination plant.

And if you didn't think there were enough regulatory rapids this proposal, like countless others, has to navigate, now the state Coastal Commission has also said it is watching what happens with the fish habitat.

Critics of the city-university plan say a delay would be no big deal, since the state's perilous finances mean UCSC's growth plans will be on hold anyway. But UCSC says its plans to add another 3,000 or so students by 2020 will be realized when the money is there to pay for housing and other costs -- and the water supply needs to be in place to allow this to happen.

In any case, Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher has told LAFCO he is close to reaching a deal with the state and federal agencies and that the fisheries will be protected under a water neutrality policy approved by the city Feb. 28. That policy would require the campus to pay fees that would go to off-campus water conservation if a baseline level of water use is exceeded.

The water expansion is part of a historic 2008 agreement between the city and UCSC that ended decades of infighting over campus growth. The university agreed to cooperate on dealing with traffic and housing problems, while the city agreed to provide water and the university continued to stress conservation measures.

Critics say that the city has failed to demonstrate it has enough water to supply the extended UCSC service -- and the stated need for a desal plant, they say, proves their point. Moreover, the diversion of water necessary to protect fish just adds to the shortfall.

In the end, many opponents of this expansion have never wanted UCSC to grow. University expansion and an increased water supply, many believe, will just lead to greater growth throughout the community -- long verboten among many in the local environmental movement.

Putting more obstacles in the way of UCSC's state mandate to serve a burgeoning student population in California would violate the spirit of trust and cooperation of the 2008 agreement. The city has addressed the newest concerns with its water-neutral agreement. LAFCO needs to uphold its preliminary approval and move this agreement forward.

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