In the News

County water manager: Transfers can't replace desal

By J.M. BROWN, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 7/27/2011

The county's top water official said Wednesday that, even if water swapping between Santa Cruz and two neighboring districts comes to pass in several years, the transfers designed to recharge regional groundwater basins and reduce the impact of drought will be no replacement for desalination.

John Ricker, director of the water resources division, said the amount of water Santa Cruz could supply Soquel Creek Water District through transfers from the San Lorenzo River during the rainy season is a fraction of what a proposed desalination plant could provide. It's unclear how much, if any, water the city might get in return during severely dry periods.

"I don't see it as an alternative to desal," Ricker said. "It may reduce the time the (desalination) project may need to be operated. But how quickly this will be able to provide relief to Santa Cruz is particularly an open question. Even in terms of providing water to Soquel, it doesn't give Soquel what it needs."

The Santa Cruz City Council agreed Tuesday to allow the Water Department to formally join a study on regional swapping led by Ricker. The study resurrects consideration of transfers that, at least for the city, was abandoned 21 years ago after it was determined Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District - its partner in desalination - stood little to gain.

But with a state grant and opponents of desalination clamoring for alternatives to transforming seawater for potable use, the county and city will look at the possibility of swaps anew. However, an environmental review, an examination of infrastructure changes and the endorsement of state and federal officials put any transfers out of reach for several years.

"The truth of the matter is the reason this hasn't been done before - and we put good bit of effort into it in the late 80s - is because it seemed very doubtful the city could get anything out of this," said Bill Kocher, the city's water. "It doesn't make it a bad idea."

Kocher recommended the council at least study it, even if he remains skeptical of their benefit to the city. In the face of projected increases in demand by 2030 and a possible reduction in diversions to bolster endangered fish, Kocher said the city needs desalination as a new and reliable water supply, as does Soquel Creek to restore its basin.

"For the last 25 years, I've been focused on our problem and this does nothing to address our problem," he said.

Still, Ricker is glad Kocher and the council have given him the chance to see how much swaps can help other agencies. "The city is critical to this whole thing," he said.

Ricker estimates transfers from Santa Cruz from December through March, when the city usually experiences excess, could provide an average of 800 acre feet of water. The Scotts Valley Water District, a neighbor in the San Lorenzo River watershed, would get the first 480 acre feet, which would be enough to offset Scotts Valley's need to pump wells 31 out of 35 winters, based on Ricker's projections.

That would leave about 340 acre-feet each winter for Soquel Creek Water District or about a third its winter demand of 1,150 acre feet. By comparison, the district is hoping for between 1,200 and 1,800 acre feet from the desalination plant.

But there are no estimates on what Santa Cruz, a surface water system that pulls from the river and North Coast streams, might get back. There's no guarantee how successful the swaps will be at helping to recover the basins that support Scotts Valley and Soquel Creek Water District, Ricker said.

Even though the transfers wouldn't provide enough water to persuade the city from dropping its push toward desalination, opponents nonetheless celebratory about the transfer study, one they've been urging for some time along with stronger conservation.

Forcing city water customers to use less will help further reduce demand to the point where the plant is unnecessary, critics say.

"Demand is a matter of policy," said Rick Longinotti, a member of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives.

In a letter to the council Wednesday, Longinotti urged the city leaders to enter mediated fact finding with his group to weigh desalination and alternatives before either his organization or the city puts the matter before voters in a ballot measures.

The state Coastal Commission must also weigh in on the desalination proposal, if the council agrees to build the plant after an environmental review is complete next spring. Costs for the plant, to be built on the Westside, top $100 million by some estimates.

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