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UC Santa Cruz growth plans have implications for reset water supply debate

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/17/13

SANTA CRUZ -- As the city weighs its next move in a stalled effort to expand water service to UC Santa Cruz, environmental watchdogs say university growth must be part of a new outreach plan involving water supply.

The City Council on Tuesday rescinded two of three resolutions made in August 2010 supporting an environmental analysis underpinning requests to expand the city's sphere of influence to include 240 acres of the undeveloped North Campus area and provide water and sewer service to new residential and academic facilities. The state's 6th District Court of Appeal ordered the resolutions be cancelled in keeping with a 2012 ruling in favor of the advocacy group Habitat and Watershed Caretakers that the environmental impact report was flawed.

But it's too early to say where the procedural move might lead.

City Attorney John Barisone said a third resolution, simply approving the expansion requests to the Local Agency Formation Commission application, can remain in place while city and university officials debate whether to fix the EIR or rethink the whole project. The council would have to OK more funding before the document could be retooled, recirculated to the public and reconsidered for a council vote.

On Nov. 26, the council is expected to take up details of a new public engagement plan to address a limited water supply threatened by drought, overtaxed aquifers and mandated fish habitat protection. The council's decision to pursue a "reset" was prompted this summer by the growing demand for alternatives to a seawater desalination plant in the works since 2005.

Several residents urged the council Tuesday to rescind the final 2010 resolution related to UCSC water as a way to demonstrate Santa Cruz is serious about considering all aspects of its supply.

"This needs to be done to make it clear that no more staff effort and no additional costs should be expended on this project until the whole water-supply, water-demand controversy has been settled to the voters' satisfaction," said Aldo Giacchino, a former leader of the Santa Cruz County Group of the Sierra Club. "You should make it clear the reset will encompass the question of the sphere of influence, as well."


But that process must involve university leaders, who agreed in a 2008 comprehensive settlement over campus growth to apply jointly to LAFCO even though the university has never accepted that agency's authority over a state entity's utility use. UCSC represents about 6 percent of the overall water consumption and has far exceeded reduction targets set by the city.

"It would be fair to say that in the upcoming months the campus will consider its next steps, and we fully expect the city will be doing the same," UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said. "The campus continues to value the positive and productive relationship forged with the city under the settlement agreement, and we're optimistic that the recent Habitat and Watershed Caretakers decision won't impact our ability to continue to build on that relationship."

Councilman Don Lane, who represents the city on LAFCO, said, "It's not a foregone conclusion the city would choose to go back to the EIR. It's equally not a foregone conclusion the university would want to do that."

In any event, Lane said UCSC water use -- past, present and future -- should factor into the new public conversation about impacts on the water supply.

"We need to establish the arithmetic," Lane said. "Let's quantify the university's growth impact on water supply, which will be revisited along with the (fish) Habitat Conservation Plan and the potential for water transfers (among regional agencies.)"

Councilman Micah Posner said voters should decide whether to proceed with the EIR and LAFCO application in the spirit of Measure J, a 2006 plan requiring a popular vote before the city initiates an annexation of its water service area. The measure was later invalidated on a technicality.

"Even though I'm not happy that someone prevailed in a lawsuit against the city," Posner said of the Habitat and Watershed Caretakers case, "it gives us an opportunity to step back and make sure we have a better public process."

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