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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | santa cruz county

The Santa Cruz side of the Bay

April 2009

by Gary A. Patton

In The Ventana last month, Julie Engell provided a disturbing picture of the water problems facing North Monterey County (“Straight talk needed about North County water supply”). There are real water problems on the Santa Cruz County side of the Bay as well.

In Santa Cruz County, critical groundwater overdraft exists throughout the Pajaro Valley. There are also groundwater overdraft problems in central Santa Cruz County, and there are very significant water supply constraints (mostly involving surface water) in the City of Santa Cruz water service area.

The City’s application, if approved, would commit at least half, and maybe all, of the City’s remaining water capacity.

The City provides water not only to residents and businesses within Santa Cruz itself, but also to Live Oak, portions of Pasatiempo, and the UCSC campus. Some North Coast farmers are also dependent on City water. On March 10, the City Council adopted a “Water Shortage Contingency Plan,” which outlines how water rationing will proceed in the case of a drought.

Recent rains have made things better, but this is still, officially, a “critically dry” year, so some mandatory water cutbacks can be predicted, starting in late spring or early summer. This is, of course, to be expected; it may even become normal.

Global warming is likely to reduce surface water supplies, and convert what used to be “dry” years into “normal” water years, so that rationing becomes “normal,” too. With this likelihood, it’s clear that the City should be very cautious about committing its scarce remaining water capacity to support new development. Unfortunately, the Council does not seem to be taking such a precautionary approach.

To the contrary, the City Council is now leading the charge for a major expansion of the City’s Water Service Area, by applying to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for permission to provide water for UCSC’s proposed expansion into its “north campus” area, now largely a natural resource reserve. The City’s application, if approved, would commit at least half, and maybe all, of the City’s remaining water capacity.

Currently, UCSC uses about 132 million gallons of water each year. The City’s application would allow the University an additional 152 million gallons of water (more than half of the City’s remaining supplies). This water would allow the University to build over 3,000,000 square feet of new buildings.

In November 2006, 80% of Santa Cruz voters adopted a measure that said: “In order to preserve the limited remaining water capacity that is available to current utility users . . . the Council shall not initiate an expansion of the City’s water service area . . . unless authorized to do so by majority vote . . . .” The University sued and overturned this mandate, and the City Council was thus not legally bound to follow its requirements.

The LAFCO proceedings that will take place later this year will ultimately determine what happens. Reading between the lines, the City is counting on a highly controversial desalination proposal to deal with the water crisis that the University expansion will almost certainly cause.

You’ll see more on this story in future editions of The Ventana.

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