In the News

Conservation plan could cost city nearly fifth of supply; Feds urge desal to protect fish
By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3/31/11

SANTA CRUZ — The city's top water official will warn city leaders next week that reducing surface water intake to protect threatened and endangered fish could require cutting supply nearly 20 percent in coming years.

Water Director Bill Kocher said restricting the flow taken from the main supply sources — four North Coast streams, the San Lorenzo River and Newell Creek — to meet federal standards for bolstering steelhead and coho salmon habitat will fluctuate depending on the season and annual rainfall. But Kocher predicts that reductions from the streams and river will average 800 million gallons a year, or about 18 percent of the 4.3 million gallons of annual supply.

In most wet years, the effect on the system's 90,000 customers from Davenport to Mid-County will be minimal. But in severely dry years, Kocher warned, shortages will surpass 40 percent unless desalination or another new water source is in place.

Kocher will present his conservation strategy, complete with more exact figures on flow reduction, to the City Council during a special meeting April 5. He plans to cite the imminent supply cuts as a key reason to build a controversial desalination plant that opponents decry as too expensive and energy intensive.

If the council endorses Kocher's strategy, he will present it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, which is pressing the city to take less water. If NOAA approves the new flow limits, Kocher will finalize the agreement in a Habitat Conservation Plan that will guide intake standards for decades to come.

WHAT'S AT STAKE
Kocher will ask the council April 5 for guidance in continuing negotiations with NOAA on the parameters of a federal incidental take permit, which would protect the city from punishment if fish are occasionally harmed, as long as flows are kept at mutually agreed levels. Kocher also has to convince U.S. Fish and Wildlife that the conservation plan adequately protects the red-legged frog and other species that call the streams and river habitats home.

But NOAA, which will use the Habitat Conservation Plan to make a determination on a permit, has signaled it wants the city first to commit to constructing a desalination plant or creating another new water supply. And without the voluntary permit, the federal agency is more apt to crack down on the city when the draining of surface water sources harms fish.

“This is a game changer,” Kocher said, adding that he hopes the figures he will present to the council April 5 meet NOAA's approval.

“The (conservation) package represents a significant improvement in conditions,” he said. “So I am hopeful they'll consider it adequate to be protective of species.”

Vice Mayor Don Lane said he believes water officials should be applauded for attempting to protect fish, even though it makes their primary objective of providing water to the city more difficult.

“There is some tension there, and the city and water department are trying to be responsible on both ends,” he said.

SUPPLY VERSUS FISH
Aggressive conservation and lower-than-expected demand have put the drought-prone city in good shape to weather some dry years, especially with the Loch Lomond Reservoir providing back-up supply. But cutting nearly a fifth of future water supply, on average, “almost gobbles up all the conservation we've done” and will cause the city to more often tap the lake, Kocher warned.

Kocher said the city has been working on plans to reduce its drain on surface water sources for many years, spending almost $2 million on consultants and an indeterminable amount of staff time trying to document adequate flow levels to support the spawning and migration of salmon back to the ocean.
“I don't think our current system of diversion from the streams and river is sustainable if we are going to be environmentally friendly,” Kocher said. “An incidental take permit recognizes that there is something going on that prevents you from creating optimal conditions. The question becomes, what is acceptable to the federal government and what is acceptable to the city. And if you find common ground, you get a permit.”

Kocher said the city has already begun implementing reductions in Laguna Creek — letting 2,700 gallons per minute go — to support migrating steelhead, which are listed by NOAA as a threatened species. Coho salmon are listed as endangered.

Population studies have documented a significant loss of steelhead and coho on the Central Coast in recent decades. In fact, NOAA has extended until June 6 its deadline for public comment on a proposed plan to extend the southern boundary of the endangered zone for coho past the river to include Aptos and Soquel creeks.

Joyce Ambrosius, a fishery biologist with NOAA's Protected Resources Division office in Santa Rosa, said it is too early to say what flow restrictions her agency will impose on Santa Cruz as part of the incidental take permit process. She said she hasn't seen the city's proposed conservation figures yet.

However, after many recent talks with the city, she said, “I think we are getting closer. It depends on how much the city is willing to step forward and meet our terms.”

She added, “What we need to do is make sure that the fish are not being harmed and not being killed and that the population is not going downhill.”

PERMIT TIED TO DESALINATION
Ambrosius believes building a proposed desalination plant that could transform 2.5 million gallons of seawater per day is critical to the city's ability to reduce its diversion enough to rescue the fisheries.

“I don't see how the city can continue pumping from the river and supply the customers and meet our fish needs,” she said. “We believe the desal plant will be a very good step in the right direction. Without some additional water supply, it's going to be very difficult for them to get a Habitat Conservation Plan approved by us.”

Vice Mayor Lane said the federal mandate to reduce the diversion from streams and the river is “so significant that it just ups the ante” on the city's need to boost supplies. “While it doesn't mean that desal has to be a solution, it does mean that there has to be a significant solution,” he said.

Estimates on the plant's cost, which will be shared with Soquel Creek Water District, have varied. It was most recently pegged at $99 million; however, Kocher said recently that, in the worst-case scenario under a 30 percent cost overrun for all phases of implementation, the price could hit $130 million.

The City Council and California Coastal Commission must first approve the plant, which is being studied under an environmental impact analysis that won't be completed until late this year at the earliest. The city is also expected to ask voters to weigh in on desalination in 2012.

If the city determines federal restrictions are set too high, the city could pursue legal action or contest any enforcement action taken under the Endangered Species Act.

Opponents of desalination argue that further conservation and water swaps with Soquel Creek Water District, which derives its supply from groundwater, would reduce the need for a plant they see as too energy intensive. Jim Bentley, a retired city water production superintendent, said it's unfortunate that creation of the Habitat Conservation Plan and desalination plan weren't more closely tied together in recent years.

“There was something big going on with Habitat Conservation Plan, but the public didn't have any clue about that,” he said. “Now we've gotten all this way and now we throw the Habitat Conservation Plan on the table and say, ‘There, we told you it was going to happen.'”

Bentley applauded the city's efforts to save fish, but will urge the council to take a tougher line with NOAA on flow restrictions. Bentley, who is part a group called Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives that is also considering a 2012 ballot measure about desal, will debate the merits of the project with water officials during a League of Women Voters event April 14.

IF YOU GO
DESAL DEBATE
WHAT: Representatives from the city of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District will debate members of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives on the question of a proposed desalination plant.
WHEN: 7-8:30 p.m. April 14
WHERE: First Congregational Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz

COHO SALMON PROPOSAL
To give input on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service proposal to extend the endangered zone for coho salmon on Central Coast to include Aptos and Soquel creeks, visit www.regulations.gov.
Mail comments to Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, Attn: Craig Wingert, Southwest Region, National Marine Fisheries Service, 501 W. Ocean Blvd., Suite 4200, Long Beach, CA 90802-4213.

IF YOU GO
SPECIAL CITY COUNCIL MEETING
WHAT: Discussion of elements to be included in the city's future Habitat Conservation Plan
WHEN: 4 p.m. April 5
WHERE: City Council Chamber, 809 Center St.

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