In the News

Editorial

How dry we are

By Sentinel Editorial Board
Santa Cruz Sentinel 3/30/13

All this water and nary a drop to drink.

Well, actually, there is enough to drink, but the past few months have been yet another reminder of the precariousness of the water supply for Santa Cruz County.

After a promising start to the rainy season, it turned as dry as a corporate balance sheet. So now, in the Santa Cruz water district, which serves 92,000 customers, talk has started up about summer restrictions.

Despite the rare presence of moisture falling from the sky in recent days, March has been another barren month in terms of rainfall, with less than an inch as of Saturday recorded this month. That would be less than a quarter of what normally falls. For the season, about 16 inches of rain have been recorded, far less than the 28 inches we regularly receive and even less than last year's 18 inches by this date in another relatively dry year.

Statewide, the situation also is starting to look pretty sparse in terms of water. The Sierra snowpack is only about 52 percent of normal, according to recent measurements. Since melted snow provides about a third of the water supply for homes and agriculture in California, this does not bode well.

Fortunately, for the Santa Cruz district, the rains of October through December provided a cushion, and Loch Lomond Reservoir remains full, but the three-month-long dry spell, during the rainiest months of the year, are a prelude to an upcoming environmental review of the proposed $125 million seawater desalination plant, which would also be used by Mid-County's Soquel Creek Water District.

We've cautiously supported this plant, mainly because we remain unconvinced further conservation is either realistic or would be sufficient. Nor do we hear any plans for further water storage, even as federal regulators want to reduce diversions from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams to boost fish habitat. But the prospect of desal suffered a significant setback in November, when city voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure mandating a ballot measure to decide the plant's fate. The Santa Cruz City Council had earlier approved an ordinance requiring voters to weigh in on the facility in 2014 or later before it could be built -- so last November's vote, supported by desal opponents, was widely viewed as an unfavorable verdict on desal.

Of course that could change, and the city Water Department is going to work with consultants to evaluate the local water supply and compare the cost to ratepayers of building a desal plan opposed to pursuing no supplemental water supply project.

The desal plant as proposed would be designed to produce up to 2.5 million gallons of new water each day during dry periods. The water system today is capable of producing more than 4 billion gallons annually in wet years but far less in dry.

With the environmental review expected later this spring, the debate over desal will continue -- and since it also involves expansion of the UC Santa Cruz campus as well, continuing political volatility is a given.

If the recent desert-dry conditions persist, public opinion might shift on desal.

Meanwhile, water officials would not be blamed if they turned from anxiously trying to read the skies along with weather forecasts and began a rain dance.

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