In the News

In UCSC expansion vote, panel waits on fish protection plan, lowers overall water limit

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3/8/12

SANTA CRUZ - The Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission signaled narrow support Wednesday for a city water expansion at UC Santa Cruz under two new conditions that left city and university officials shaking their heads.

The essential question facing the panel, which is charged with approving such boundary and utility service changes, is whether the city has enough water to supply more to the university for development outside city limits at a time of drought-year shortages and uncertain reductions in surface water supply.

The majority of LAFCO members were doubtful enough to vote 4-3 in favor of Commissioner John Leopold's recommendation not to permit any new water be delivered to an undeveloped 240-acre area eyed for new student housing until negotiations with fisheries regulators are completed. Leopold's plan, supported by Commissioners Jim Anderson, Roger Anderson and Jim Rapoza, also calls for lowering by 15 percent the baseline level of annual water use above which UCSC would have to pay fees for off-campus conservation.

Noting LAFCO's mandate to ensure an adequate water supply, Leopold, a county supervisor, said, "There are big question marks about whether the city has that supply," especially absent approvals for a proposed seawater desalination facility to produce more water during droughts.

Regulators from the National Marine Fisheries Services and California Department of Fish and Game urged LAFCO to deny the city and university until the city's Habitat Conservation Plan and diversion permits are approved by those agencies to boost habitat for endangered salmon species. City officials have no estimate on when talks with regulators may wrap up.

LAFCO could take a final vote in April after its lawyer verifies the legality of the new conditions placed on the university. Even if approval is granted, the city, university or any opponents of the expansion have the right to file an appeal with LAFCO.

A minority of commissioners, including Don Lane, Daniel Dodge and Chairman Neal Coonerty, preferred Wednesday to finalize the expansion as outlined in December, when LAFCO gave the controversial expansion a tentative thumbs-up. As required by LAFCO, the city has since passed a water-neutral policy on UCSC water use, which says any increase above 206 million gallons each year - a limit determined in a 2008 settlement to end lawsuits with the city, county and citizen groups - would generate funds for replacing lawns or low-efficiency appliances in town.

The campus, which already has surpassed city conservation targets by cutting 50 million gallons per year from 2007 to 2011, is asking for up to 100 million gallons more per year in the event maximum growth of 3,000 more students is realized, which few expect given the state's financial shortfalls.

"The city really put the screws to the university to demand a reduction," said Commissioner Lane, who serves as the mayor of Santa Cruz. "Now if we do something like this we are moving the goal post for the university of what the community wanted them to do."

City officials, who insisted the university subject itself to LAFCO approval in the first place, are now worried LAFCO's decision will enable the university to grow unchecked for however long it takes the city and fishery regulators to reach consensus on diversions from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams that comprise 85 percent of supply for the city's 92,000 customers.

The university doesn't have to abide by the growth agreement to provide housing for two-thirds of new students on campus through 2020 unless LAFCO approves the water extension. According to UCSC's online records, the campus already has enrolled more than 1,100 students from the time settlement talks began in 2007 to 2011, the latest official figures available.

"The shame of this decision is, it's putting thousands more students into more neighborhoods and costing our water customers millions," Councilman Ryan Coonerty, an author of the growth pact and the LAFCO chairman's son, said after the vote. "I just wish this LAFCO had shown some concern for the quality of life in the community."

The commission tentatively approved lowering the university's baseline to 176 million gallons per year, which Leopold said represents UCSC's average use during the past five years. Under LAFCO's conditions, the university would have to pay $6,500 for each 85,000 gallons of water over that amount, which it would exceed after building housing and academic buildings in the north campus.

"In some obvious ways, the trajectory of the board discussion was very disappointing to us - and we suspect to the city," UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said. "One aspect of today's hearing was particularly troubling: The prospect that - very unfairly - the city, the campus, or ultimately all of the ratepayers may now be penalized for UCSC's many water-conservation accomplishments."

Burns said UCSC isn't inclined to pay more on a lowered baseline and city officials are worried if LAFCO can't legally bind the university to the lower limit, the overage fees will be passed on to ratepayers.

A number of UCSC students and graduate researchers encouraged LAFCO to deny or delay the expansion, saying it won't improve educational opportunities through growth. Rather, they said it will only require stretching resources thinner and increasing UCSC's debt to construct buildings.

Luz Cordoba, a UCSC researcher and city resident among those in a standing-room only audience Wednesday, said, "The expansion will demand the building of a desal plant to compensate for water shortages, which we are already experiencing today." City officials say the facility is proposed only to offset emergency drought. Voters will get the first of several chances as early as November to decide the plant's fate.

Charlie Edie, a land use planner and UCSC alumnus, said LAFCO should support the expansion to "reaffirm the work that's been done" to improve relations between the city and university. He said many students opposed to growth now wouldn't have been admitted had past differences not be ironed out.

"Speaking as a resident, things are way better when the university and city are in cooperation," he said. "That is really what this is about."

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