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Santa Cruz must address water demand in growth blueprint

 by Rick Longinotti
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/24/12

In our community, emotions run high on the issue of growth. Yet in order to make good decisions, we need to set aside heated emotions long enough to think clearly. A fateful decision is before the Santa Cruz City Council at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The council will consider approving the general plan, to guide city development through 2030.

The environmental impact report for the draft general plan indicates that the demand for city water could grow by as much as 14 percent by 2030. That's a problem.

According to a 2004 Water Department report, Adequacy of Municipal Water Supplies to Support Future Development, "Even in normal water conditions, three of the four major sources [San Lorenzo River, N. Coast streams, Live Oak wells, and Loch Lomond Reservoir] are presently being utilized at maximum capacity for a significant portion of the year. ... What this means operationally is that any future increase in seasonal or annual demand for water will be felt through greater and greater withdrawals from Loch Lomond."

The reservoir is the city's water savings account in case of a drought.

The same report considers the risk of allowing growth to deplete the savings account: "It might be all right to accept a higher level of drought risk if the desalination project remains pretty much on schedule and if the outlook for success remains optimistic." There are many factors that could torpedo the desalination project: the voters turn it down; the Coastal Commission denies a permit on the grounds that the city did not pursue other options; etc. Under the circumstances it is not wise "to accept a higher level of drought risk" caused by growth.

The general plan needs to protect water customers from increased water demand caused by growth. The plan needs to incorporate LAFCO's tentative decision: resolve the negotiations with the National Marine Fisheries Service over how much water to leave in the streams for fish habitat prior to allocating more water to UC Santa Cruz expansion. We need to know how much our water supply will be reduced for fish habitat before giving more water away from the city's savings account.

What is the city's reaction to this LAFCO condition? Astonishingly, the city attorney has threatened to sue LAFCO if that body upholds this condition. City leaders appear to have forgotten the will of the people, expressed in a ballot proposition approved by 80 percent of the voters in 2006, which would have required a vote of the people before offering more water for campus expansion. [UCSC got a court to invalidate the election results on the basis of a technical error in placing the measure on the ballot.]

The general plan also needs to include a water-neutral growth policy, requiring developers to fully offset increased water demand through conservation measures offsite. Soquel Creek Water District has had a water-demand offset program in place since 2003. Santa Cruz Water Department chief Bill Kocher claims that Santa Cruz has an equivalent program. However, a true water-neutral program would not allow demand to grow by 14 percent over the next 20 years!

During the same time period, Soquel Creek District plans to lower their water demand by 11 percent. Where there's will, there's a way that Santa Cruz could match Soquel Creek, and preserve our drought security in Loch Lomond.

Rick Longinotti is co-founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives. For more information on the group, visit DesalAlternatives.org.

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