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Chapter Chair's Column
Endangered species, desal and growth are all linked
April 2011

Water supply problems for the Santa Cruz City Water Department and the Soquel Creek Water District are tied to a coincidence of events now attracting public attention. These events are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pressure on the City for violations of the Endangered Species Act and the proposal for construction of a seawater desalination plant jointly by the Soquel Creek Water District and the City of Santa Cruz.

For many years the City Water Department has been operating in practical violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act and has, at times, done severe damage to fish populations by taking too much water out of rivers and streams. The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service is requiring the City to prepare and put in effect a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for endangered salmon and steelhead. Other wildlife are also affected. This HCP agreement would reduce City surface water diversions from several north coast streams and the San Lorenzo River by nearly 20%. This reduction would have a serious impact on water supplies during drought years. The Soquel system uses wells which delay direct impacts upon stream flows, but impacts occur nonetheless.

NOAA, which has the authority to impose expensive fines on the City, has delayed for years their use of this authority. Fish populations have continued to decline, in part because of low stream flows. Complex studies have set the acceptable amount of water that can be diverted from each stream without doing significant harm to salmon.

Many residents are upset about the proposal for a desalination plant. It would be very expensive, produce expanding greenhouse gas emissions and would facilitate housing growth. A desal plant would also have biological impacts on ocean life. Growth, of course, increases water demand and could overwhelm benefits from increased water conservation or desal.

Growth is the wild card in this complex equation. The City supplies water to parts of the County but does not control growth in the County. UCSC expansion is the first major growth issue affecting water supply.

Some claim that increasing water conservation is possible and would make a desal plant unnecessary. The amount of conservation necessary in a severe drought has never been implemented before in this water district. Stringent limits on water use during a severe drought would be regarded as draconian by many residents and would take a serious political and enforcement commitment on the part of City, County, and water system officials.

The Santa Cruz Group Sierra Club Water Resource Committee is studying all these interconnected factors as we consider taking a position on these issues. If you want to be involved, contact Deirdre Des Jardins, 423-6857.

—Kevin Collins

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