In the News

Santa Cruz Council Orders Water Swap Study

By Jacob Pierce
Santa Cruz Weekly, 8/3/11

The idea that the city of Santa Cruz could send its surplus winter river flows to the Soquel Creek Water District for storage until needed is not new. First proposed in the 1980s, the notion of a cross-county water swap lost traction soon after going public as both parties agreed there was “little potential” for a share. Now it’s back. On Tuesday, July 26, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously directed city water officials to study a possible water transfer project with the South County district.

They aren’t the first ones to the party. A county Resource Conservation District water study currently under way notes that the city has more water than it knows what to do with during winter months, and that the Soquel Creek district’s all-too-dry wells offer a unique place to store it year-round. It recommends sharing with Scotts Valley, too, also suffering from dry wells. Water activists and council members alike applaud the county’s study, which comes in the middle of a fierce debate over a proposed desalination plant, the environmental and fiscal costs of which won’t be known until next year.

The status report says a deal could help quench South County’s thirst, allowing the district to rest wells that are being sucked dry faster than rainwater replenishes them. The Soquel Creek district, the report also suggests, could one day send water back to the city in summertime—when the San Lorenzo River slows to a trickle—and bring the region into water-sharing harmony.

“We think this is a really good idea,” says Councilmember Don Lane, while adding, “We do recognize that there are some obstacles.”

Skeptics wonder, though, if the proposal would produce enough water for Soquel Creek to fully replenish its wells and ever send flows back to the city. Santa Cruz water officials doubt it. Soquel Creek officials do too.

“It is not a silver bullet to solving our overdraft problem,” says Laura Brown, Soquel Creek Water District’s general manager. She says the 110 million gallons Santa Cruz would provide is about 7 percent of what her district consumes in a year. “You would ideally want to be in a secure place yourself before you start wheeling water back to another agency,” Brown adds. The report’s 110 million gallon figure is subject to change based on a number of factors, including the possibility of a water rights change that would have to be approved by U.S. Fish & Wildlife. If the city successfully applies for a water rights change, the agency might let it share more water with other districts in the county.

Council members and water officials will have to weigh any potential swap along with desalination to decide if the plan could ever help offset the region’s demand—or if it’s just a drop in the bucket.

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