In the News

Forum Explores Water Swap Scenario

by Jacob Pierce, Santa Cruz Weekly, 6/8/12

There’s a reasonable solution to our water woes, skeptics of a $100 million-plus desalination plant are arguing, and it involves the large groundwater wells under Soquel, Aptos and Rio Del Mar.

“My goal is to ultimately look at a bigger solution,” says Peter Haase, a Santa Cruz member of Engineers for Water Alternatives, the latest group taking a crack at water options other than desal.

The group is hosting a June 14 forum about conjunctive use, also known as water swapping, which is currently being studied by the county. The possible swap would involve pumping the San Lorenzo River’s surplus flows to other places in the county. The idea has made county water resource director John Ricker, who leads the study, quite popular with desal opponents—even though Ricker has doubts that this is the game-changer environmentalists have been awaiting.

Under the plan, the Santa Cruz Water Department would send the San Lorenzo River’s excess winter water to wells in the Scotts Valley Water District and the Soquel Creek Water District to recharge their overdrafted aquifers. While Ricker’ study has focused largely on recharge, desal opponents say the two districts could eventually send water back to the city. That would happen either through passive natural processes (as in the case of Scotts Valley, where water naturally leaks from the groundwater basin into the San Lorenzo River during summer months) or via an active process of pumping water from mid-County to the river during the dry season. Both processes, it’s thought, would ease the extremely low summer river flows that imperil fish and translate to a water shortage for the city of Santa Cruz.

Desal Alternatives’ leading activist Rick Longinotti touted Ricker’s plan in public meetings and emails for over a year and pressured city staff to join the study, which it did in July 2011 under city council’s direction.

There’s one caveat: Ricker says the plan would fall short of completely replacing the water projected to come from a desalination plant, penciled in for a site near Natural Bridges if it gets voter approval next summer. “It would reduce the need for the desal plant, but it doesn’t provide an alternative,” says Ricker, who will speak at the forum.

Longinotti acknowledges that the amount of water generated from water swapping is smaller than the 1.5 million gallons that would be generated daily by desal. Desalination could offer Soquel Creek Water District between 230 and 540 million gallons of water per year, depending on whether or not the city of Santa Cruz needs it in the summer for drought protection. That dwarfs conjunctive use estimates from last summer of 65 million gallons per year to Soquel Creek Water District—just 7 percent of the water it typically uses in a year.

But the exact numbers aren’t final, and Longinotti doesn’t think the difference in figures sinks the plan’s viability as an alternative. Longinotti wants conservation to be part of the equation too. “Ricker thinks desal could make up that shortfall,” he says. “We think conservation could make it up.”

The conjunctive use plan would recharge wells eventually, but the question is how long that would take. According to a February study by Soquel Creek Water District, it could take as many as 80 years before the district’s wells are fully recharged given current water usage rates. (Soquel Creek Water District has offered to negotiate sending water back to the city district before its wells fully recharge.) Scotts Valley Water District doesn’t provide projections for how long recharge would take its big underwater basin, which is less severely overdrafted than Soquel Creek’s.

Thursday’s forum will also bring in experts from outside Santa Cruz. Don Seymour of the Sonoma County Water Agency and Peter Ferraro, formerly of the Santa Clara Water Valley District, will speak at the event, which is being held at Ecology Action.

Haase hopes it will be the first in a series of events with more forums in August and the fall—one on recycled water and another focusing on aquifer recharge. Haase says city staff is focusing only on plans for a desal plant.

City water department director Bill Kocher says he’s “guilty as charged.”

“But there’s a good reason,” says Kocher, who, like Ricker, thinks conjunctive use could supplement but not replace desalination. “For the past 20 years I focused on all the options. If I thought [conjunctive use] was a viable alternative, I’d say let’s do it.”

As Ricker prepares to speak at the forum, he says there could be changes in the details and figures in the plan. Nine months of study remain to be done, but at this point he doesn’t think it doesn’t look like conjunctive use will be enough to quench the region’s thirst.

“It’s a project that we’re working on,” Ricker says, “and it’s good to get the information out as far as what’s possible and what’s not possible.”

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