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Hard decisions loom for Soquel Creek Water District

By Rick Meyer/Special to the Santa Cruz Sentinel 6/23/13

The Soquel Creek Water District, which serves customers from Capitola south to La Selva Beach, has begun to consider a moratorium on new water meters. If this policy is implemented by the board on which I serve, it would prohibit all further development requiring water service within the district's boundaries until sufficient water supply is available. We are forced to consider this drastic step because we cannot promise to provide adequate water to new customers over the long term, or even service existing customers properly, without a new source of water.

Our only source of water is 16 wells. We have depleted the aquifers. Water tables have dropped and we are starting to see seawater in some of the district's coastal monitoring wells. Once seawater has contaminated coastal aquifers, it is virtually impossible to reverse. Only restoring groundwater tables above sea level to provide an outflow  of fresh water into the Monterey Bay will keep the sea at bay.

When the board learned last year from its hydrologists about the full extent of the overdraft and what sustainable level of pumping will allow our aquifers to recover, it courageously voted to reduce pumping, one way or another. At considerable expense, we are moving pumping inland, away from the advancing sea, but this will only buy time. Simply put, we must develop a sufficient and reliable new source of water to preserve the economy and quality of life in the communities we serve.

After decades of identifying and evaluating options, desalination has repeatedly emerged as the only viable supply option that would solve our problem. The size and operation of the proposed desalination plant assumes that district customers would continue to improve water conservation practices and that total water delivered would not increase through at least 2030.

The possible moratorium is part of a larger water emergency plan that will take effect if the desalination project does not proceed. To reduce water use to the groundwater recovery target, this plan would impose mandatory rationing that would restrict each person to only 53 gallons per day, a cutback of about 35 percent, with penalties for excess use. Since we have already implemented the most cost-effective conservation measures, this level of rationing would be an expensive hardship.

For example, it is estimated that only 10 percent of toilets have not already been converted to low flow in both the city and the district. Together, our customers use only about half the water of the statewide average. Only difficult and expensive measures remain. To assure a deep and fast enough cutback, the district would have to pay contractors to install a wide range of water-saving technologies and the cost of those installations would fall on customers.

Human safety and health would take priority over outdoor use, so lawns, gardens, parks and playing fields would go brown and cars would stay dirty. Tourist and recreation activities, and everyone who depends on them, would suffer. The ultimate cost of the 35 percent mandatory rationing program would be similar to the cost of desalination. The difference is that it would provide inadequate water at about 64 percent higher cost per gallon. Water rationing of this magnitude for the needed 20 or more year duration would be unprecedented, and its success is not assured.

These effects are not the claims of a scare campaign -- they are part of a detailed emergency plan that will take effect without desalination, according to adopted district policy.

Because the district requires new customers to offset their projected new water demand by paying for conservation measures elsewhere in the district, new customers do not directly increase demand. But if those conservation measures are implemented to enable continued development, they cannot later be used to reduce overall demand, making the needed 35 percent cut more difficult to achieve. This might be considered as placing an unfair burden on existing customers.

We wonder if it is fair to ask existing customers to conserve more, as we are already doing during the current drought, when we allow newcomers to share the scarce supply. A moratorium would preserve this conservation potential, but would disrupt many building plans. That's why we will consider all the policy issues very carefully before acting. We're starting by initiating a peer review of our hydrologist's estimates of the groundwater shortage.

Sustainability or crisis, green or brown -- soon we will choose.

Rick Meyer is a member of the Soquel Creek Water District board of directors.

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/opinion/ci_23519742/rick-meyer-hard-decisions-loom-soquel-creek-water

 

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