In the News


Tapped out: Mid-County water district facing more tough options

By Sentinel Editorial Board, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/5/13

With most of the attention and criticism aimed at city of Santa Cruz officials over an at least temporarily mothballed $129 million desalination facility, it was easy to overlook another water crisis percolating to the surface in Mid-County.

Soquel Creek Water District has been a partner with Santa Cruz's water department in planning the desal plant -- and in many ways the smaller water district, which serves 38,000 customers in Capitola, Soquel, Aptos, Rio del Mar and La Selva Beach, may have the more immediate need for additional water supply.

That need was in evidence Tuesday night when the district's board of directors voted to continue requiring individual water meters for accessory housing units (AKA "granny units"), despite protests the policy will discourage homeowners and further drive up the cost of housing. The policy has been around since 2002, but the costs have been rising, with smaller units on the hook for $14,000 in fees. The fees go up for bigger units.

Just about every decision made in the water district is being shaped by the stark reality they have to reduce groundwater pumping. The district is hoping to reduce the water taken from its wells by 30 percent over the next two decades to let the overtaxed basin recover and to fight back against saltwater intrusion.

With Santa Cruz deciding to suspend any further action on desal for an undetermined period, Soquel Creek faces some difficult, and unpopular, decisions. Options include mandatory rationing and a moratorium on development and new connections. It hasn't helped that conservation efforts earlier this summer came in below under what district officials were hoping to see -- probably because customers already were doing a good job of cutting back.

Soquel Creek customers may be facing, in addition to high water bills, the kind of curtailments that Santa Cruz hasn't yet faced -- which might explain why the most vocal desal critics mostly are within the Santa Cruz water district.

The Mid-County district has to wait and see whether Santa Cruz can summon the political will and environmental credentials to revive the desal plant. Short of that, planned developments in Aptos Village and the Rancho del Mar shopping center may be delayed or scuttled because of the cost and availability of water connections.

In addition to conservation and attempting to refurbish fresh water supplies against sea water, the district, which has a new general manager, Kim Adamson, also faces a tough sell trying to convince about 1,000 private and commercial well owners to take less groundwater.

The overdraft and impending moratoriums are the reason why Soquel Creek Water was part of the desal project. The reasons haven't changed, even if the solution is now something of a mirage off in the distance.

Desal, in city leaders' words, is on a "reset" perhaps awaiting the kind of water crisis already being felt in the neighboring Mid-County district. What's happening in Soquel Creek not only is reframing the debate over conservation and water supplies, but should get the attention of residential and business customers in Santa Cruz as well.

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