In the News

Santa Cruz approves continued talks to protect fish: Desal opponents urge greater conservation

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 4/06/11

SANTA CRUZ -- The City Council directed water officials Tuesday to continue negotiating with federal authorities to set future targets for reducing surface water diversions to restore coho and steelhead salmon habitat.

The council voted unanimously to further pursue a voluntary permit with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries that would increase flows in the San Lorenzo River and four North Coast streams, which supply 75 percent of the city's water. The permit, based on a Conservation Habitat Plan being drafted by the Water Department, would reduce the chances of future government interference if the plan is followed.

However, water officials are increasingly drawing connections between fish conservation and the need for a desalination plant.

They have largely promoted the proposal to build a plant that could transform 2.5 million gallons of seawater each day as a fail-safe measure for drought years. But federal officials have recently indicated an unwillingness to support a diversion permit without new water supplies.

Water Director Bill Kocher told the council he would recommend drawing down the Loch Lomond Reservoir when surface water diversion from needs to be reduced. But, he said, "You have desalination so you can pull harder on the lake than you would otherwise."

Desalination opponents who are concerned that the additional water supply created by the plant will be used to offset planned growth saw the meeting as an opportunity to urge more aggressive conservation policies, such as rules requiring developments to have a neutral effect on demand.
They say desalination is too costly and unnecessary considering a 20 percent decrease in demand over predictions five years ago.

Mayor Ryan Coonerty downplayed the criticism, saying the point of the council's action Tuesday was to define a strategy for protecting fisheries, not fully exploring conservation and the merits of desalination.

"We will have a lot of good discussion, but let's not lose sight of what we are focusing on today," Coonerty said. "This is a positive step, an overdue, but important step."

Water managers will take the rest of the year to draft the habitat plan before the application for a permit will be brought back to the council. The city is also in talks with California Fish and Game to protect other species living in and around the streams and river.

The Habitat Conservation Plan currently recommends setting three flow levels for the future. The lowest would maintain habitat but set a floor on flows to halt further degradation. The second and third levels would reduce flows to protect habitat, with the third cutting back the most.

Water officials said in most years the city could pursue the second level but take more during dry periods. In future years with desalination or another new supply, they said the city could do the largest cutback, taking more water only when needed. In years when the city has to fall back on higher flows, it will pay between $250,000-$500,000 per year to bolster habitat restoration elsewhere.

Former Mayor Celia Scott, a longtime conservationist, said she expected the city had already violated the Endangered Species Act and was being given a temporary pass from federal authorities.

"What is missing here is a water demand reduction strategy as part of a comprehensive Habitat Conservation Plan," she said. "The fish do not need off-site mitigation. They need water in the stream."

Alison Woolpert, one of numerous citizens sporting a button that said "Save a Flush for the Fish," said, "No amount of new water supplies, including desalination, will protect fish habitat unless we have controls in place, controls to prevent water demand from rising."

© 2008-2013 scwd2 Desalination Program, All rights reserved.