In the News

Soquel Creek Water District to consider long-term rationing program
Residential customers would get 75 gallons per person daily

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

SOQUEL — Tuesday, the Soquel Creek Water District board will take its first comprehensive look at a plan to reduce groundwater pumping during the next 20 years by rationing residential customers and setting irrigation limits for commercial and institutional accounts.

In response to the district's recent declaration of a groundwater emergency, the "conservation plus" proposal sets a limit of 75 gallons per person daily backed by excess use fees of up to $4 per 100 gallons over budget each month.

Businesses, vacation rental owners and institutions will not have formal rationing limits but will not be allowed to water grass, unless the turf serves a specific function such as a sports surface and will be surveyed to ensure they are using high-efficiency fixtures and appliances. Commercial customers will have to follow landscape irrigation guidelines and adhere to a budget of 0.75 gallons per square foot if they have dedicated irrigation meters.

The plan is designed to reduce pumping 500 acre feet each year, which represents about a third of the district's long-term pumping reduction target of 1,500 acre-feet per year — though that target may change based on conflicting reports from consultants. An acre foot is equivalent to about 326,000 gallons, and the district pumps about 4,400 acre feet annually.

"We're talking about policies and programs that are needed for long-term lifestyle change and business practice changes for high-water users," conservation manager Ron Duncan said.


Since February, the district's customers have cut use by an average of 18 percent, though officials largely attribute the gains to public awareness about the statewide drought, including the rare step neighboring Santa Cruz took in May to ration residential accounts through at least October. But because the dire lack of rainfall isn't driving the district's problem — chronic overpumping has allowed seawater to threaten wells near the coast — the district is seeking a solution that will outlive the drought.

Without changing consumption habits, about half of residential customers would exceed their new allotments in summer and early fall due to increases in outdoor use at a time when precipitation essentially drops to zero, Duncan said. About 14 percent would exceed the limits in winter.

If the conservation ordinance is approved Tuesday and during a second reading Sept. 2, the district would not levy fines until early 2015 for residential customers and July 2015 for commercial customers, choosing instead to inform residents through mailers and visiting businesses.

Because the district uses a one-person household as its baseline, residential customers will must submit forms attesting to the number of people living in a resident — or state other reasons like health concerns, part-time residents or large animals — for needing more water. People living alone will get 85 gallons per day under the assumption they have laundry, irrigation and other water uses that would otherwise be shared.


By comparison, Santa Cruz set its rationing baseline at four people per home and a total of 249 gallons per day, or about 62 gallons per person. However, the fines for residential customers in Santa Cruz are 50 percent higher than proposed by Soquel Creek, equivalent to up to $6 for each 100 gallons over the limit.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend, who represents a large swath of the district, said getting buy-in from customers through a "phased and reasonable" approach is the best way to address the groundwater basin's long-term health.

"Over the last year, the board has been more focused on polarizing issues like moratoriums instead of what customers can actually do to help contribute to the solution," Friend said. "Many elements of this plan refocus back toward what actionable items the customer can do to help solve the water challenges."

The new conservation program will cost $3.2 million in its first year and about $2 million each of the next two years, Duncan said. The higher initial costs will pay for increased personnel and surveys to launch the program.

Emergency rate increases put in place earlier this year will fund the program, $1.3 million of which will be set aside for each of the next several years to fund rebates for customers who install high-efficiency devices and replace grass with waterwise plants or turf.

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