In the News

Santa Cruz water panel gets first look at public's supply ideas
Alternatives are a focus of group's yearlong work

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/2/14

SANTA CRUZ — During a two-week window, the city received 80 ideas from more than 50 people or organizations about Santa Cruz's drought-vulnerable water supply, officials said Friday.

Ideas tackled how to generate more supply and manage existing sources, as well as options for conservation and storage. Respondents called for a range of actions, including groundwater recharge, building a desalination plant, reviving the proposal to build a dam on Zayante Creek or construct other reservoirs, promoting composting toilets and using more recycled wastewater.

The Water Department set July 28 as the cut-off date for submissions, but the city's Water Supply Advisory Committee appointed to make recommendations next year called for more time.

Member Mark Mesiti-Miller, who represents the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce, said he is worried there are more voices locally and nationally that could weigh in.

"My concern is there are some really smart people out there," he said. "The good idea may not have arrived yet."

The committee is still ironing out exactly how it will approach its evaluation of supply threats and alternatives. A deeper investigation of options will come later this year.

In the fourth set of meetings since being formed in February, the committee briefly reviewed a list of alternatives explored by the city for the past 40 years, beginning with building the Zayante Dam in the 1970s and 1980s and ending with the council's decision a year ago to suspend a seawater desalination project.

Former five-time mayor Mike Rotkin told the panel the Zayante Dam was completely and finally rejected when the council agreed to relinquish the city's water rights on the creek after a political battle over the project's growth-inducing potential. The plans also suffered from environmental impacts, including on the fishery.

The city also decided against expanding pumping at the Felton Diversion facility placed on the San Lorenzo River, the city's largest water supply source, in the mid 1970s. Groundwater was the focus in the late 1980s, but studies found the yield insufficient and the cost of treatment too high.

Off-stream diversion of North Coast streams and treating water from brackish groundwater wells were also considered, but desalination emerged as the only singular project capable of producing the amount of water needed during the driest periods.

In 2005, the council named desalination as its preferred supply project and set 25 percent as the maximum level of mandated conservation it would impose on citizens. However, after a long-delayed environmental study was released last summer, city leaders pulled back on desal after growing concern over the energy use, wildlife impacts and high costs.

While the supply panel now reviews old plans and new ideas, county officials are examining the possibilities of water transfers between regional agencies during periods of excess, though it's unclear when they will have the capacity or ability to share.

Friday, the panel briefly examined ongoing negotiations with state and federal fisheries regulators over improving stream flows to support endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout. Members signaled they will wrestle with how to prioritize providing water for fish habitat and demand from customers, which is expected to grow at least 10 percent by 2030.

"There is a relationship between having a sustainable habitat for fish and a sustainable habitat for humans," said city Water Commission Chairman David Green Baskin, adding that fish are an important source of food, recreation and the overall marine environment guarded closely in Santa Cruz.

The panel will meet again Aug. 27 and 29.

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