SANTA CRUZ -- One of the biggest questions when evaluating whether the city of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District should build a $123 million desalination plant is whether they need to.
In its 2006 review of desalination, the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments found, in part, that "Since seawater desalination is an energy intenstive and expensive water source, it should only be pursued when there is a clear and established need for a new water supply."
But has the city demonstrated that the facility, capable of transforming ocean water into 2.5 million gallons of drinking water each day, is really the best way to protect Santa Cruz from severe rationing during droughts? Is desalination really the key to allowing the district to rest its wells and recharge its overdrafted aquifers?
The answers lie beyond the simple notion of whether the two agencies have proven a need for more water. Based on their supply-and-demand scenarios alone, however, it's clear why the neighboring districts are exploring desalination -- a common practice in the Middle East and Australia but one mired in controversy in California, where there are 17 plants proposed.
Low rainfall in winter and spring can lead to diminished flows in the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams that prevent the city from meeting current demand, let alone future growth and mandates to increase flows for fish habitat. The city estimates it will face shortages of
It's also widely accepted that Soquel Creek's groundwater basin is nearing exhaustion. In fact, although desalination is more closely identified as a Santa Cruz project because the facility would be built there, it's clear the seriousness of Soquel Creek's problem is fueling the plan's urgency.
Whereas Santa Cruz has a once-in-a-while problem corrected by Mother Nature's rainfall and runoff, Soquel Creek has an ongoing problem that only will get better if the district reduces its groundwater pumping. The overdrafting has led to saltwater intrusion found in highest levels around Seascape and La Selva Beach.
John Ricker, the county's longtime water resources manager, is working on boosting supply through regional water swaps enabled through future connections. In the interim, he supports desalination.
"We have been able to get by because we have been fortunate not to have a severe drought as we did in the '70s," he said. "There has been a long-term need for something."
The city, which would have priority use of the Westside plant from mid-April to mid-December, has proposed running it only during dry periods. Otherwise, Soquel Creek typically will operate the plant year-round at a low capacity, usually producing 1 million to 1.5 million gallons per day.
An environmental impact report is expected in November or December, and if approved by the City Council and district board, the question of building the facility will come before voters, as well as state and federal agencies. The city's water director, Bill Kocher, said he doesn't expect the report to reveal any environmental problems that can't be mitigated with time and money.
SUPPLY IS KEY
But the public who is paying for the plant and the host of regulators charged with permitting it will want a full airing of the supply problems before being convinced.
"If there isn't shown to be a strong need for this, that would be problematic," said Susan Craig, supervising coastal planner with the California Coastal Commission.
Andy Shiffrin, a longtime aide to well-known conservationists and former county supervisors Gary Patton and the late Mardi Wormhoudt, believes a new supply is warranted.
Conservation helped to reduce consumption 25 percent in Santa Cruz from 1997-2010, but there is still no bulwark against drought for a system that has had no new supply since the inflatable Felton diversion dam was put in place on the San Lorenzo River in 1976. However, Shiffrin, who serves on the city's Water Commission, said Soquel Creek's saltwater intrusion is more grave.
"If we were now just talking about drought, it's more questionable whether there is a demonstrated need," he said.
Rick Longinotti, a founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, agrees Soquel Creek must recharge its aquifers. But he has urged agencies to begin transferring water to each other -- there is winter excess in Santa Cruz -- and take more a more radical approach to conservation.
"Whatever limit we come up against we always turn to technologies," Longinotti said. "It's extremely myopic because it's not sustainable under any long-term thinking. ... We have to live with what we've got."
And what we've got, everyone agrees, is total self-reliance.
WATER IS LOCAL
Santa Cruz gets the water to serve its 92,000 customers from the San Lorenzo River, North Coast streams and Live Oak wells, supplementing in the summer peak season by drawing down the Loch Lomond Reservoir created by damming Newell Creek. Soquel Creek draws from the Purisima and Aromas Red Sands groundwater aquifers located in the Mid- and South County areas. There is no imported water.
The city's geographic isolation became ever-present in 1976-77 during its worst drought on record, which preceded another dry period from 1987-92. The city severely rationed water and has curtailed use twice in the past three years.
Water managers long ago considered building a dam on Zayante Creek for Santa Cruz and on Soquel Creek for the district. The city also has studied raising the dam on Newell Creek to increase storage in Loch Lomond.
But dams are met with resistance from those bent on limiting growth. And fisheries regulators resist dams because they reduce flows needed to support habitat for the endangered coho and threatened steelhead salmon.
In the Soquel Creek district, coastal groundwater levels began declining in the 1980s and by the late 1990s were in overdraft. The district, which serves about 38,000 people from Capitola to La Selva Beach, formed an advisory committee of environmentalists, business officials, private well owners and others who landed on a regional desalination project.
"The district has always known we would have to have supplement supply," said Laura Brown, the former district director.
Seawater intrusion, promoted by the loss of freshwater buffers, is occurring in the Aromas Red Sands Aquifer, where monitoring wells at the end of Sumner Avenue in Seascape and Playa Boulevard in La Selva Beach are showing signs. The system has 75 monitoring wells in 25 locations watching for intrusion, including in the Purisima Foundation that serves Capitola, Soquel and Aptos.
"Once you have saltwater intrusion, it's virtually there," Brown said. "You can't go back. You have to protect against it constantly."
Patton, the former county supervisor who has influenced regional water issues for four decades, believes groundwater overdraft is the county's most significant resource challenge. But he believes the district and city need to find ways to live within their means rather than pursue desalination.
"It is hidden," he said of overdrafting. "You have the illusion you can continue on forever, like a bank account."
Hydrologists have determined it will take 20 years for the basin to recover but only if the district pumps no more than 2,900 acre feet of water each year, or about 945 million gallons. That level represents a cutback of 28 percent below 2010 use of 4,000 acre feet.
The district anticipates the population of its service area will grow 4.8 percent -- from 37,720 in 2010 to 39,550 by 2030 -- but expects conservation and curtailment will increase use less than 1 percent over 2010 levels. Even if use returns to higher, pre-recession levels, the district plans to offset the demand.
"(Growth) is a minute fraction of what we have to recover the basin," according to Ron Duncan, the district's conservation director.
Brown said conservation efforts will continue, "but we will always need the (desalination) plant. It becomes for both agencies an insurance policy."
PROBLEM IN SANTA CRUZ
Two-thirds of the city's water customers live in town and the other third live in Capitola, Live Oak or other unincorporated areas up to Davenport. The service area population grew 6 percent from 2000-2010 but use dipped 22 percent, which officials chalk up to conservation and economic factors.
In wet and normal years, the city can draw enough water from the river, streams, wells and reservoir to meet demand, which in recent years has been about 3.1 billion gallons annually. The system is capable of producing at least 4 billion gallons in good years.
But as rainfall and stream discharge from the river decrease, the system becomes vulnerable.
According to the city's 2010 Urban Water Management Plan, rainfall in Santa Cruz has registered below the annual average of 30.7 inches, 21 times from 1974-2010, or nearly 60 percent. The city has classified itself as dry or critically dry 14 times, or nearly 39 percent of the time, during that same period.
In 2009, after several years of dry conditions, the city reduced water use 15 percent for the peak months of May to October. And this year, the city asked customers to cut back 5 percent, prohibiting daytime irrigation, washing down paved surfaces or filling pools until Oct. 31. The Soquel Creek district took similar steps.
After being fined this summer for letting irrigation run off, Previn Patel, owner of the Days Inn on Riverside Avenue and Pacific Inn on Ocean Street, said he understands the problem.
"I am having a whole new approach on how serious the water situation is and how the officials are enforcing it," he said.
As the Sentinel examined supply-and-demand scenarios, what became clear is the desalination plant will be used by the city more than every six to seven years as publicly suggested.
Water Director Bill Kocher has acknowledged his department could run the plant whenever there is even a 5 percent water shortage, though production may not reach the 2.5 million gallon-per-day capacity. If the plant is built and "we just sit on it waiting for shortfalls to reach some arbitrary level, I would think water customers might wonder why," Kocher said.
But in years like this one -- when customers have cut back, stream flow is better than predicted and the reservoir is healthy -- the city may decide not to use the plant, Kocher said.
In multiple dry years, the city predicts the system will produce 2.6 billion to 2.8 billion gallons annually, which falls 9-15 percent short of current demand of 3.1 billion gallons. Anticipated growth for the entire water service area of 10 percent by 2030 as well as mandated flow restrictions to restore fish habitat will exacerbate the problem.
The Urban Water Management Plan predicts demand could grow 29 percent from current levels to 4 billion gallons annually by 2030, a level that could be reduced by conservation or other measures as in past years. But at that level of growth, the annual shortage would reach 35 percent in the driest years.
Kocher said he believes demand will more realistically reach 3.8 billion gallons by 2030. Under either growth forecast, customer curtailment still would be needed with desalination producing a maximum of just 600 million gallons during the city's priority period.
The Nov. 6 vote on Measure P, the question of whether the city's charter should be changed to secure voters a say on desalination, could be a good bellwether for how engaged citizens are on the issue of water supply.
Until recent years, United Way's annual Community Assessment Project recorded low rankings for the subject of water availability when county residents were surveyed about top environmental concerns. In 2009, when water customers were asked to cut back 15 percent, water availability shot to the top of the list.
Water supply surely will be debated among candidates vying Nov. 6 to fill four open seats -- a majority -- on the City Council. The council, as seated after the election, is likely to be the one to certify the desalination plant's environmental analysis and vote on whether to proceed.
"Because the desal proposal is essentially a tax increase (via water fees) that faces significant and organized resistance, it is unlikely to be approved in 2014," said candidate Micah Posner. "As a practical matter, the city should immediately prepare and present alternative proposals that provide a modicum of drought security while allowing for water neutral in-fill development at the university and within the city."
Zachary Graham, a university graduate student, understands the need for water but is concerned about the energy requirements associated with desalination, which by the city's own estimates could be 12 times higher than traditional water treatment sources.
"I think there are some hurdles, but where else will Santa Cruz get its water? Loch Lomond's not going to do it, and we're in a drought," said Graham, a doctorate candidate in electrical engineering.
Rama Khalsa of Soquel, who retired in December as the county's public health director, said, "I want to make sure we don't compromise on water quality. I wouldn't want to see standards compromised because we don't have enough. Drinking water is the highest priority."
Khalsa is a member of the Sustainable Water Coalition, a group supportive of pursuing desalination.
"I was seeing that not much of anything is turning around," she said about the local supply problem. "The more we suck out of the major wells in the Soquel water district, the more we tempt fate in terms of saltwater intrusion."
TOURISM HIT HARD
Brent Haddad, who directs the Center for Integrated Water Research at UC Santa Cruz and negotiated the desalination agreement between Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek, said minor cutbacks are barely noticed. But raising curtailment to 30 percent or more rather than approving desalination could have grave consequences.
"We would have our tourism economy that would suffer, we wouldn't be able to serve weekend water demand in summertime, and the kinds of people who would be directly affected would be temporary workers who can be easily dismissed from their jobs," said Haddad, who in July published a seven-year study on the economic and ecological impacts of desalination.
Mike McClellan, a member of the city's Water Commission who serves as facilities manager for the city's largest restaurant employer, the Crow's Nest, likened desalination to "the major medical plan for the economic driver of our city."
He said the restaurant located at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor would have to consider dropping breakfast or lunch service, possibly laying off 40 to 50 percent of its staff, if water were rationed back 30 percent for businesses in the worst-case drought.
"The trickle down would be huge -- first of all employment, then tax dollars and the rent we pay to the Port District," McClellan said. "It's really our worst nightmare."
Follow Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmbrownreports
The city serves a population of about 92,000 -- 60,000 living inside the city and 32,000 from outside the city.
42 percent: Single-family residential
23 percent: Multi-family residential
19 percent: Business
7 percent: UC Santa Cruz and small industries
4 percent: Landscape irrigation
2 percent: Commercial agriculture
2 percent: Golf courses and other municipal uses
SOQUEL CREEK DISTRICT
The district serves about 38,000 from Capitola to La Selva Beach
62 percent: Single-family residential
16 percent: Multi-family residential
18 percent: Commercial, industrial and institutional
4 percent: Irrigation
SOURCE: City of Santa Cruz, Soquel Creek Water District