In the News

As We See It: New diversion in water battle

Editorial, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 4/07/11

The fight over water in Santa Cruz County probably won't be settled easily -- or soon.

The latest move in this long-running argument came Tuesday when the Santa Cruz City Council told the city Water Department to keep talking to federal officials about ensuring there will be enough water in local streams to support endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead.

While this might seem a bit obscure, the real story here is that it is another stratagem by local water officials to highlight the need of building a desalination plant.

The plant, which is years off, would be a joint project of the Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek water districts. Combined, the two water agencies serve about 140,000 customers. If the desal plant is built, Santa Cruz water users would have first call on the fresh water it produces during dry summer months, Soquel Creek in winter months. The plant would process a maximum of 2.5 million gallons of seawater a day, and officials say it would be used only in emergency situations.

What's the connection between fish and desal? The water folks say that to make sure the fish have enough stream flow, they'll have to cut back the amount of water diverted from the San Lorenzo River and four North Coast streams.

That means less water for residents and businesses. It also means a severe drought will cause major restrictions on use that will hurt local business and be unacceptable for many residential customers.

But a group of local environmentalists opposed to desal say water officials should instead be planning for more aggressive conservation policies and regulations on new developments aimed at how much water they use.

If water officials in Santa Cruz and Mid-County put more effort into saving water, they say, there won't be a problem for fish and there won't be a need to spend perhaps in excess of $100 million for desalination, along with creating associated environmental problems including excessive energy consumption.

They also don't like the potential for more water supply promoting development and growth.

For people not involved in this debate, and who have gone through a wet winter where rainfall totals on the coast have reached about 3 feet for the season and nearly 5 feet in some areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this might seem mystifying. Desalination might be necessary in dry or desert regions -- but not rainfall-rich Santa Cruz County.

The reality is that in Santa Cruz, most of the supply comes from surface streams and the storage capacity has not expanded in decades. The reasons why not are the familiar bugaboos about growth and development, along with costs and environmental factors.

Meanwhile, the underground aquifers that supply water to Soquel Creek customers in Mid-County have become depleted.

As the potential costs of desal rise, does it still make sense in an era of dwindling financial resources and a renewed push for conservation?

Since local water users are already using about 60 percent less on average than other Californians, we think desal opponents are being too optimistic that increased conservation will make up shortfalls.

Water officials clearly believe the stream diversion proves their point -- that there simply won't be enough water next time we go through a season with scant rainfall.

Unless groundwater supplies somehow are replenished and more storage comes online, desal backers should continue to make their argument. But it will probably take a drought year to sway public opinion.

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