In the News

Santa Cruz officials seek summer water cutbacks: March rain helped offset dry winter, but not enough

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 4/3/12

SANTA CRUZ - The city's Water Commission approved a request Monday to recommend the City Council pass daytime irrigation restrictions to help recover from a dry winter and reduced river and stream diversions.

March's rainfall was nearly a third higher than average, allowing water managers to improve the season's status from "critically dry" to "dry," according to the city's final Water Supply Outlook released last week. But the 6.11 inches that fell in March was not enough to help the city bounce back from the unusually dry months of December, January and February, when only 4.75 inches fell compared to a 30-year average of 18.2 inches during that period.

Rainfall for the season in Santa Cruz is just 61 percent of normal for the season to date. More importantly, runoff from the San Lorenzo River, the city's largest water supply, remains just 40 percent of normal.

"What saved us this year was last year," Bill Kocher, the city's water director, said, referring to heavy rain in late 2010 and early 2011 that filled the Loch Lomond Reservoir and strengthened river and stream flow.

The March precipitation is having a similar effect statewide.

"An unusually wet March improved conditions, but did not make up for the previous dry months," Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in a statement Monday. "The take-home message is that we've had a dry winter and although good reservoir storage will lessen impacts this summer, we need to be prepared for a potentially dry 2013."

Local water managers will ask the City Council on April 24 to implement a 5 percent curtailment beginning May 1, expecting the city will need help offsetting reduced diversions on the river and streams in a manner that relies less on drawing on the Loch Lomond Reservoir.

Since January, the city has been releasing more water from the river and North Coast streams to protect endangered and threatened fish habitat while negotiations with federal and state regulators continue over what the city's formal diversion limits will be in the future. The trial release - higher in the winter and lower in the summer when demand is higher - is designed to see what impact various reduction levels have on the city's supply.

City officials don't expect, however, the Water Department will be able to release as much water as regulators would like. Even though the reservoir spilled over March 17 after a healthy rain, they don't want to use it too much to backfill the release in case of another dry winter.

Water Director Bill Kocher said managers will strive for reducing river diversions by 25 percent beginning in June when summer tourism and irrigation season increases demand. However, during the high-demand months of August and September, it's expected that flow from the river could be 35-44 percent lower than the level the city is authorized to divert.

"While we are going to release more than we ever have, we're not going to release as much as the agencies want," Kocher said.

A 5 percent curtailment means the city's 92,000 water customers from Davenport to Live Oak will be prohibited from irrigating lawns or gardens from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and run off cannot hit the sidewalk or street. Enforcement can include fines beginning at $100.

If the council approves the Stage 1 Water Shortage Alert, there also will be recommended restrictions on filling pools, providing drinking water in restaurants and washing linens and towels at lodging establishments.

The cutbacks will certainly shape the debate this summer over a proposed seawater desalination plant that would boost supply during drought periods. Desal opponents are collecting signatures to put a city charter change amendment on November's ballot, one that would ask voters if they want to have a future say on the plant.

The city also has passed an ordinance saying voters will have a say as early as June 2014 on the Westside facility. The city would have to pay for both ballot measures.

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