In the News

Desalination: A process of eliminating alternatives

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/29/12  

SANTA CRUZ -- Local water managers agree with desalination opponents on at least one point: A $123 million plant should be a supply source of last resort.

Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District officials contend they've exhausted reasonable alternatives, including damming creeks, creating more storage and importing or swapping water.

Although questions remain about how much more conservation is possible or whether treated wastewater eventually will be approved for drinking, the Sentinel has found an array of other choices to be politically unlikely, costly, unreliable or incapable of providing enough water to prevent severe rationing or restore aquifers.

Meanwhile, opponents continue to press for combining alternatives.

"I don't think we are going to come up with alternatives that are going to be cheaper than desal," Jan Bentley, retired Santa Cruz superintendent of water production. "But to utilize all the alternatives takes a policy decision and a commitment to do that."

Regulators will look at how an environmental analysis of the desalination plant addresses alternatives as required by state law. Opponents could file a lawsuit charging the city and district failed to explore other options, as critics of UC Santa Cruz expansion and the La Bahia Hotel have done in recent years.

"Desal is still the most expensive source of water," said Tom Luster, the state Coastal Commission's pointman on desalination, adding that any municipality will need to demonstrate it has exhausted its options. "Why go there if you have these far less expensive sources that aren't going to cause coastal impacts?"

The city identified desalination -- a process that involves pumping seawater to a facility that would strip the salt -- as the most viable option to augment supply in 2003. The district followed suit in 2006, and in 2007 the two created a task force for carrying out the proposal.

The county's largest environmental group, the Santa Cruz Group of the Sierra Club's Ventana Chapter, has yet to take a position on desalination and wants to ensure the water agencies have vetted alternatives, chair Mike Guth said. Those alternatives include evaluating the cost of desalination compared to the costs of repairing leaks in the system -- which the water director puts at about 4 percent of total water -- as well as treating recycled wastewater and replacing all low-efficiency appliances.


The greatest potential for creating more water for the city's 92,000 customers exists on the very source that produces half the supply, the San Lorenzo River. The same is true of the tributary that gives Soquel Creek Water District its name.

"The fact remains: The water is there, and we let it flood to the ocean," said Bob Burick, a Seascape Beach Association resident and retired Granite Rock Co. engineer. "If we stored just a portion of that in some various rebuilt or new facility, we will have an abundance of water."

But storing water is laden with problems.

The city reports the long-term average runoff on the San Lorenzo is about 30 billion gallons, or about 10 times the current annual consumption. Winter flow could be pumped into an off-stream reservoir and recharged in the Santa Margarita aquifer serving Scotts Valley, a move that would help include base flow in the river for fish habitat.

But diverting more water at any time could have an impact on fish habitat, and storing water creates growth-inducing potential and effects other endangered species or plants, the city's water director, Bill Kocher, said.

There are other geological and political constraints.

Andrew Fisher, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UC Santa Cruz, said transferring water for storage would launch a water-rights fight, and even if off-stream diversions were approved, they would require storage tanks or injection wells. For the district, because its main aquifer is "pretty tight," Fisher said, the wells would have questionable results and it would take years for water to percolate down from holding ponds.

"The question is, where do you want to put money, effort and capital to provide more resilience?" said Fisher, who describes himself an "agnostic" on desalination. "Essentially every year we roll the dice again. Every year we start from scratch."

Opponents are not satisfied, believing the city could capture runoff and share it with Soquel Creek and Scotts Valley if political and legal hurdles were jumped.

Randa Solick, a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, said, "You sit there in the middle of February and watch everything run off and think, 'What the heck are we doing?'"


Decades ago, the city faced an army of anti-growth opposition to damming Zayante Creek, including former Mayor Mike Rotkin and others who now back desalination. Rotkin said the dam would have created too much water and posed seismic danger.

"We cannot dam up another creek," he said. "That is not going to happen."

Andy Schiffrin, a former aide to local anti-growth icon Gary Patton, said the decision about Zayante Creek can't be criticized without looking at the major housing projects planned at the time on Wilder Ranch, Pogonip and parts of the North Coast.

"I don't think it's reasonable to look at the dam proposal in isolation," said Schiffrin, now a city water commissioner. "The whole notion of what the city was going to be like was extremely different then."

Kocher said damming Zayante now, even if the city could get permits would be four times as expensive as desalination, and would require blocking Zayante Road and affecting habitat for the endangered Mount Hermon June beetle.

Some opponents have called for the city to raise the level of Loch Lomond Reservoir created by damming Newell Creek. The city's main emergency storage already spills over 70 percent of the time.

But Kocher said increasing the lake's 2.8-billion-gallon capacity by 1 billion gallons would trigger a demand by fisheries to release about half of that for fish.

On Soquel Creek, building a dam to create Glenwood Reservoir for the district would create 7,250 acre feet of water rights, exceeding the 1,100 acre feet gap between current use and a groundwater pumping target. But the district took that option off the table, citing regulatory hurdles.

Getting surplus water from a Santa Clara County district was abandoned after the neighboring Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency decided against a pipeline project for agriculture use.

"It would be prohibitively expensive to build our own pipeline, even in conjunction with Santa Cruz, over the Santa Cruz Mountains to deliver supply that would only be available when the owner determined it was surplus to their needs," said the district's former director, Laura Brown.


An alternative that carries some potential is transferring water between agencies -- an alternative popular with desalination opponents. Even if the city agreed to provide excess winter flow to Soquel Creek through a new connection, dry years would yield nothing and the city would see little in return considering Soquel Creek is trying to rest its wells.

John Ricker, the county's water resources manager, is reviewing regional swaps. But, he said, "Almost nothing could be done right away because of legal constraints on water rights."

Rick Longinotti, a founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, believes the agencies should work on transferring what they can when possible. The City Council has agreed to pursue that.

"Allegations that the basin must first be restored before Santa Cruz receives any water during drought years do a disservice to this very promising strategy of collaboration between water agencies," he wrote the council in June.

Longinotti and others have urged the city to take Soquel Creek's lead and institute a "water-neutral policy" to offset new use.

The Soquel Creek district has required developers to offset new use 120 percent since 2003. The district has proposed a 20-year ban on new development should desalination be rejected.

"They are considering that if there is going to be a problem, they will rule there will be no new hookups," Solick said.

The city charges development fees to fund conservation and other offset measures, but does not require an exact exchange of conservation for new demand, the only exception being for its largest customer, UC Santa Cruz. The city instituted the recent policy in hopes of winning approval later this year for extending water to an undeveloped sector of campus outside Santa Cruz's current boundary.

UCSC -- which reduced its water use 27 percent from 2003-2011 by replacing toilets, using faucet aerators, replacing showerheads and installing waterless urinals -- will pay fees whenever use exceeds a cap to be set by a commission weighing the expansion. The city also will continue collecting development connection charges from customers for off-campus growth.


Daily per-capita water consumption in Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek -- which includes residential, commercial and other kinds of customers -- went down 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively, from 2000-2010, according to each agency's 2010 Urban Water Management Plan.

At 97 gallons for Soquel Creek and 93 for Santa Cruz in 2010, the figures are below the 2020 state target of 123 set for the Central Coast. Daily use rates among residential customers only are even lower.

"We are among the lowest water users in the state," said former Mayor Rotkin, a co-founder of the Sustainable Water Coalition that favors desalination. "It's not like we haven't pressed this stuff out there."

For years, the city and district have offered rebates for replacing toilets and washing machines with higher-efficiency devices and conducted free audits to help customers detect leaks or other problems. They have given away showerheads, aerators and other water-saving devices, but have been less successful at getting customers to take more aggressive steps, such as replacing turf.

In 2003, the city began requiring water fixtures be updated every time developed property is sold, and so far nearly 7,000 sites have been retrofitted. The city also has a water budget program for its 181 largest landscape customers who could save 24 million gallons annually with better water management, and both the city and district have tiered rates to encourage conservation.

There is also untapped potential for savings on the plush greens at DeLaveaga and Pasatiempo golf courses. The city provides both courses with drinking-quality water equal to 2-3 percent of the annual consumption in its service area.

While Pasatiempo, a private course, is working with Scotts Valley to receive recycled wastewater, DeLaveaga is a city-owned course. There are no plans to use recycled water for the municipal course; a separate pipeline would have to be installed.

"Both courses are professionally managed and their water management, as compared against their water budget that is based on the amount of area irrigated and specific plant water requirements, is excellent," said conservation manager Toby Goddard.

The remaining potential for water savings is difficult to predict, partially because the answer lies in determining what customers will tolerate.

"One of the unknowns is how much further could the community go in terms of conservation," said Kirsten Liske, vice president of pollution, prevention and zero waste programs at the nonprofit Ecology Action. "It's an issue worth investing in."

Soquel Creek customer Leslie Chow and her husband have replaced showerheads, installed a drip irrigation system and may consider taking out a small lawn, adding a recirculating water pump and taking other measures.

"There are a lot of things we would do more of if the cost comes down a bit," she said.


In June, Soquel Creek took the step of creating two no-desalination options that would require strict curtailment to reach a target groundwater pumping level that would let the district's overdrafted basin recover over a 20-year period.

The first plan, costing ratepayers $40 million over 10 years compared to nearly $52 million for constructing desalination, would enhance rebates and rely on customers to change toilets, showerheads and turf. The other, costing $117 million, would entail the district paying for and installing retrofits.

The district projects its rate increases by 2023 would be 103 percent to do the first plan and 182 percent for the more aggressive one. Yet, both are risky, staff analyst Shelley Flock warned.

"The real clincher is, is it possible to keep people's interest for a 20-year period?" Flock said. "No one has ever has sustained restrictions on this level."

Longinotti, co-founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, applauds Soquel Creek for providing customers with those options.

"This is why we want the community to decide," Longinotti said, noting desalination's high-energy costs and other environmental impacts. "Do we really want green lawns knowing that?"

Santa Cruz hasn't made similar projections for the cost of curtailment as opposed to desalination, other than determining its revenue losses during rationing.

The city, which expects to pay nearly $70 million to construct desalination, predicts it will lose at least a quarter of its annual revenue during a 50 percent water shortage and there would be further personnel costs for managing the crisis. To make up for the losses, the city could increase rates, defer capital improvements or draw down a $30 million reserve eyed for desalination.

Goddard, the conservation director, said the desalination plant's environmental impact report will provide details about how much conservation there might be left. As part of updating its 10-year conservation plan, the department also will hire a consultant to survey households to determine how much untapped savings remains.

But Ricker, the county's water resources director, cautioned conservation has a limit.

"There has been a lot of wishful thinking that we could solve more problems by doing more conservation," he said. "Realistically, that just isn't there."

He said low-flow toilets and high-efficiency washing machines can help, but, "every increment gets harder and more expensive."

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Toilets: $150 for 1.28 gallon flush or dual flush, $200 for commercial

Energy Star washing machine: $100 for residential and $400 for commercial

Turf replacement: 50 cents per square foot up to $250 for single-family residential customers, $1,000 for multifamily and commercial

Rain barrels: During the rainy season, the city offers 65-gallon rain barrels at a discount, which in the past has been about $50 for a barrel that retails for $149.

Pressurized water broom: $50 for commercial

X-Ray film processor re-circulation system: $2,000 for commercial

Cooling tower conductivity controller: $900 or $1,200 for commercial


Toilets: $150 for 1.28 gallon flush or dual flush

Energy Star washing machine: $100 for residential, $200 for commercial

Hot-water recirculation system: $75

Graywater to landscape: $75 per connection, up to three connections

Irrigation parts: $5 per part, maximum of $50 for residential and $250 for large sites

Drip irrigation retrofit: $20 per 100 square feet converted

Rain catchment system: $25 for 40-200 gallons, max $750 for 3,000 gallons

Weather-based irrigation controller: $75-$125

Turf replacement: $1,000 max for single-family home, $3,000 for nonsingle family; covers 50 percent of materials cost up to $1 per square foot of turf removed.

SOURCE: City of Santa Cruz, Soquel Creek Water District


The city of Santa Cruz has offered rebates for toilet retrofits since 1995 and washing machines since 2000, reporting at least 11,000 and 7,200, respectively. Soquel Creek Water District issued an estimated 3,700 toilet rebates from 1997-2011, 4,915 washing machine rebates from 1999-2011 and directly installed 3,452 toilets from 2003 until 2010 when it stopped that program.

SOURCE: City of Santa Cruz, Soquel Creek Water District

See Deconstructing Desal in Santa Cruz

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