In the News

The Year in Review: Drought dominates the headlines

By JM Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 12/31/14

SANTA CRUZ — A persistent drought, a call girl charged in the fatal overdose of a high-tech executive and the death of a beloved district attorney topped the headlines in 2014, a year also defined by a healing economy but unprecedented violence in the county’s agricultural heartland.

After one of the driest years on record in 2013, water was the top story in 2014 for its deep political, financial, environmental and public health impacts. The year brought hope of rain though precious little fell on Santa Cruz County until December.

While future supply options are studied for Santa Cruz and Mid County, the recent foot-plus of precipitation was enough for Santa Cruz to halt the residential water rationing and fines for excess use enacted in May for the first time 24 years. The dry spell had left the San Lorenzo River at near-record lows, caused the city to drain Loch Lomond Reservoir to its lowest level in a generation, and drove North Coast farmers to slash planting.

But the drought, and renewed awareness about conservation, also gave weight to a neighboring agency’s long-term effort to reduce groundwater pumping.

After the Soquel Creek Water District hinted at — then backed off — a moratorium on new hook-ups, customers followed the lead of Santa Cruz water users and cut consumption 20 percent as the district retools its conservation plan. Meanwhile, new state groundwater rules emboldened efforts to work with other agencies, the county and well owners to cooperatively manage the basin.

The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency also made strides in May when it adopted a long-range plan to reduce groundwater pumping by 22 percent in the face of saltwater intrusion.

The plan, in development for years, relies on conservation and local supply and recharge projects to save nearly 4 billion gallons of groundwater per year in an area where agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of annual consumption.

Water woes also dominated the opposite end of the county when the state in January deemed Lompico in danger of running out of water within four months. An emergency pipeline, paid for by state funds, was installed to connect the tiny, drought-stricken community to the larger San Lorenzo Valley Water District, and a merger could be finalized in 2015 after a vote by residents.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The national spotlight was trained on Santa Cruz in July after Santa Cruz police announced the arrest of call girl Alix Tichelman, 27, in the November 2013 death of Google executive Forrest Hayes aboard his 50-foot yacht in the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. Dubbed the “harbor hooker,” Tichelman faces manslaughter charges in connection with the heroin overdose that killed Hayes, a 51-year-old married father of five whom she met on an escort website.

Death hung over Watsonville in 2014 as the city experienced a record 10 homicides in one year, many of which were gang related. Police pledged to work with community and faith leaders to stem the bloodshed.

The criminal justice world also was shaken in June when longtime Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee acknowledged he was fighting an illness — later disclosed as a fast-moving cancer — and died in mid-October at age 57. Lee was heralded as a tough and passionate prosecutor, who most recently oversaw an investigation into the 2013 shooting deaths of two Santa Cruz police officers and launched a city-county initiative to direct low-level chronic offenders toward accountability-based services rather than a cycle of incarceration.

As the county enters 2015, it faces unrest over its policies on needle exchange and marijuana cultivation. While reducing hours of the exchange amid concerns of discarded needles, county leaders have been working on draft amendments to a cannabis cultivation ordinance that would limit the size and number of grows and bar them from residential neighborhoods.

ECONOMY, FOR BETTER OR WORSE

UC Santa Cruz students waged protests in November after the university’s governing body announced plan to raise tuition up to 5 percent each year for the next five years. Students took over a campus building for six days to demonstrate against the increase while others scrambled for shelter as over-enrollment, a dearth of rentals and packed residential halls created a housing crunch.

The local economy provided a bright spot in 2014 as unemployment hit an eight-year low in September at 6.2 percent. The median home price also climbed to $725,000, close to the peak seen in 2006 before the Great Recession, and new businesses cropped up around the county, especially on the culinary and tech scenes.

TOP 10 STORIES OF 2014

The Sentinel chose the following as the Top 10 stories of 2014:

1. The drought: The city of Santa Cruz enacted residential water rationing for the first time in nearly 25 years after a near historic dry spell eased a bit by healthy December rainfall. Soquel Creek Water District sees deep conservation as it seeks to reduce groundwater pumping, and Lompico’s water district gets an emergency pipeline to a larger neighboring district ahead of a possible merger in 2015. Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency adopted a long-range plan to reduce groundwater pumping to block saltwater intrusion.

2. ‘Harbor hooker’: In July, Santa Cruz police arrest escort Alix Tichelman, 27, in connection with the November 2013 fatal heroin overdose of Google executive Forrest Hayes, 51, aboard his yacht in the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. Tichelman has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges.

3. Bob Lee: In October, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee died at 57 after a protracted battle with cancer. The 26-year prosecutor, who grew up in Santa Cruz County and won four terms in office, was known as an impassioned justice seeker.

4. Watsonville violence: Ten of the county’s 12 homicides in 2014 occurred in Watsonville, many of which had gang ties. Among the most alarming killings was that of 4-year-old Jaelyn Zavala, who was hit by a stray bullet in October while inside a restaurant owned by her family. Police and community leaders pledge to work together to stem the bloodshed. In June, voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase, guaranteeing about $2.8 million in revenue for public safety during the next seven years.

5. Improving economy: The county’s unemployment rate hit an eight-year low in September and the median home price shot up to levels nearing a 2006 peak.

6. UC Santa Cruz: Students protested after a November announcement of plans to raise UC tuition over the next five years. Demonstrators took over a building for six days as others scrambled to find housing amid a saturated rental market and full campus housing. The campus also began preparations for its 50th anniversary in 2015 and saw record applications and fundraising.

7. Discarded needles: County officials restricted needle exchange amid ongoing concerns about discarded needles and required pharmacies to take back used needles. Pressure stayed high on public health professionals by city leaders and community activists to balance the proven harm-reduction of exchanges with streets, beaches and parks clear of needles.

8. Santa Cruz City Schools: It was a blistering year for Santa Cruz City Schools after acrimony within the board led to the removal of the president then a ballot-box ouster of two incumbents amid deep spending by the teachers union on behalf of challengers. After a controversial superintendent retired, the interim leader has grappled with board politics, budget challenges and safety concerns following the discovery of a loaded gun at Mission Hill Middle and an email threat of mass violence at Santa Cruz High.

9. Watsonville politics: Watsonville experienced historic political change when a citizens group, Let the People Vote, was successful in passing a trio of measures aimed at curbing the power of the City Council. In another sign of dissatisfaction with the council, in November voters ousted two incumbents from a five-member progressive majority in favor of self-described independents.

10. Marijuana: City and county voters approved business taxes on medical marijuana dispensaries, but county leaders are working to draft amendments to a cannabis cultivation ordinance. The changes would limit the size and number of grows dispensaries are allowed and bar them from residential neighborhoods.

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