Third Dry Year, Drought Demands Action

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Last year Santa Cruz received its lowest level of rainfall on record. Since the city is 100 percent dependent on local rainfall for its water supply, the City Council considered a variety of alternatives, the most controversial being desalination.

Santa Cruz’s water shortage has been at an all time low since 2011, causing several groups to lobby in support of various solutions to the issue.

“In a year with normal rainfall, our water system can produce more than 10 million gallons of drinking water per day,” said vice mayor and councilmember Don Lane. “But when there’s a drought, we won’t always be able to meet the amount we need, especially if there’s very little rain the rest of this winter season.”

While a desalination plant could provide up to 2.5 million gallons per day of drinking water, it is an energy-intensive process — taking 12 times the amount of energy it currently takes to produce a gallon of water. Santa Cruz and neighboring districts such as the Soquel Creek Water District have allotted nearly 15 million dollars to studying the project.

Desal Alternatives, an organization of 25 people established in 2010, has been campaigning against the desal proposal, advocating for the City Council to explore alternatives.

“Desal is essentially trading electricity for water, and I think that’s a bad trade,” said Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives chair Rick Longinotti. “This would increase our fossil fuel usage. It is also very costly. More importantly, it’s a high cost to operate due to massive use of electrical power.”

In 2012, Desal Alternatives started the Right to Vote on Desal group, gathering petitions to vote on desal. Last November, Santa Cruzans voted “yes” on Measure P, which allows the community to vote on any future desal facility. The measure passed with a 72 percent vote.

The City Council faced overwhelming community support for desalination alternatives in last November’s meeting. However, the City Council claimed that because the community’s opposition didn’t offer concrete alternatives, desal should remain an option.

“I can’t say there’s one stance for the entire City Council,” Lane said, “but in general we put the whole desalination project on hold and we will study a variety of other options and work with the community. We will then have a fresh look at the whole question and make a decision on which approach for water supply we are going to use. Desal is just on a faster track than any of the options.”

Lane said the soonest the community may vote on the proposal would be 2016, so until then there is no telling what options could arise and which direction the city will take.

“It’s very possible that through a community engagement process, another option will emerge instead of desal,” Lane said. “If that happens, there may never be a vote on desal.”

The City Council created the Water Supply Advisory Committee last month to explore long-term alternatives. It will have 14 volunteering members, which may include representatives from Desal Alternatives and the Santa Cruz Water Commission.

One of the top alternative ideas is a proposed plan to transfer water between neighboring districts as a water storage strategy — drawing from the San Lorenzo River, treating it, and sending it to the Scotts Valley and Soquel water districts.

While other alternatives are still being discussed, groups like Desal Alternatives are currently campaigning to have consumers reduce their water usage. The committee claims the city’s request for citizens to cut their water usage by 5 percent last April was too modest.

“It should have been closer to 15 percent when they were asked to cut back [in April]. When they cut back by 15 percent in 2009, the reservoir level grew to 90 percent by September 2009,” Longinotti said. “This year, at the same period, the reservoir was down to 75 percent. We didn’t aim high enough.”

The Santa Cruz Water Commission took part in conservation efforts by extending Stage 1 Water Restrictions — mandatory restrictions on water usage, such as barring restaurants from serving water until requested and mandating nozzles for hoses at all times. These restrictions took effect last May and would have ended in October, however they have now been extended indefinitely due to continuous dry conditions.

Santa Cruz Water Commission Communications specialist Eileen Cross said the Santa Cruz community as a whole could make a huge difference by following basic steps toward conservation.

“There are a lot of things the community can do — fix leaks, ask people to turn off all landscape irrigation,” Cross said. “The Water Department has a number of programs to help people install aerators in the sinks or water-saving shower heads.”

Desal Alternatives chair Rick Longinotti said though the city’s water shortage is dire, there are always ways to alleviate the situation and to not only survive, but thrive.

“There are other parts of the world living well under much less water per capita,” Longinotti said. “We have lots of room to improve our conservation. Australia uses 40 gallons per person daily, for example. We’re somewhere around 60. We know Australia is not suffering. In my own household, we’re using less than 40 gallons per day and we’re still living fine. I know its possible.”