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The City of Santa Cruz faces mandatory cut-backs in the amount of water it draws from the San Lorenzo River, exacerbating shortages during drought years. Meanwhile, the Soquel Creek Water District is overdrafting its groundwater aquifers, causing sea-water intrusion and threatening it... read more

The City of Santa Cruz faces mandatory cut-backs in the amount of water it draws from the San Lorenzo River, exacerbating shortages during drought years. Meanwhile, the Soquel Creek Water District is overdrafting its groundwater aquifers, causing sea-water intrusion and threatening its existing supply. The two agencies partnered to evaluate a desalination plant. What are all the options available?


  1. Identify 1.25 MGD of water for Soquel Creek District
  2. Increase City of Santa Cruz drought resiliency


There has been so much bitter disagreement about water in our community that it seems the old adage must be true: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting." And yet we all share the same goal of finding a solution to our community's projected water shortfall.

The purpose of this workshop is to develop an inclusive set of solutions for dealing with this shortfall, which is currently 1.25mgd (million gallons per day) during non-drought years and projected to be 2.5mgd during drought years The preference or need for any one solution (whether desalination, conservation, or water transfers) does not preclude the implementation of others. Our goal is a comprehensive package of solutions that will yield the greatest resiliency in our water supply and lead to the overall health and prosperity of our community.

This is a space for civil, rational and level-headed collaboration. Anyone who posts disrespectfully may be moderated.

Please note that if you wish to respond to the Draft EIR for the proposed desalination plant, you must mail in a printed copy due to the state mandated process. Responses are due by July 15th, 2013. You can use the form available here.

Santa Cruz Water Department

The Basics

The city of Santa Cruz numbers 60,000 residents, but the city's Water Department serves 90,000. The additional customer base is primarily located in Live Oak, which lies between 7th Avenue in Santa Cruz and the western boundary of Capitola.

Santa Cruz gets 95% of its water supply from flowing sources. Loch Lomond accounts for 12% of the total supply, but the reservoir is recharged through streams and is therefore included in this 95%. A handful of wells in Live Oak account for the remaining 5%.

The region naturally experiences large fluctuations in seasonal rainfall, and some years these "flowing sources" don't offer much in the way of supply. The real threat comes from multi-year droughts in which Loch Lomond is not fully replenished during the winter rainy season and begins each summer already depleted. In this scenario, each successive year of drought compounds the effects of the last, and the reservoir becomes less and less likely to fully recharge over the winter. During the 1976-77 drought year, the worst on record, residents experienced mandatory water restrictions of 40%. Many residents who were here at the time can recall their lawns and fruit trees dying.

2013 Status

In 2013, California snowpack was at 52 percent of normal. According to a report from the California Department of Water Resources, this will force a drop in delivery, from 40 percent to 35 percent, of water requests submitted to the State Water Project (the aqueduct that runs from the Bay Delta to Los Angeles).

Santa Cruz is one of the few counties that couldn't receive water from the State Water Project even if it wanted to. The high surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains prohibit that. But in Santa Cruz County, annual rainfall last winter was only 58 percent of normal. The Santa Cruz City Council voted to adopt a Stage 1 Water Shortage Alert on April 1. Mandatory water restrictions of 5% have already been announced. Given that 2011-12 was also dry, some argue that we are at the beginning of a potentially serious multi-year drought.

For more on this season's conditions, click here

Further Cutbacks and Demands Ahead


The National Marine Fisheries Service has demanded that the Santa Cruz Water Department reduce the amount of water it draws from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams in order to preserve habitat for federally endangered coho salmon and federally threatened steelhead trout. Negotiations are still in process over how much will have to be reduced and when the restrictions will start. Non-compliance would result in heavy fines for the city.

UCSC Expansion

UCSC's Long Range Development Plan calls for up to 19,500 students by 2020 (up from 17,187 today). The faculty-led Strategic Futures Community (SFC) stated that 25,000 students would be needed in order to have every program rank in the top 25% of public research universities. However, Chancellor Blumenthal reduced the amount to the 19,500 figure.

According to the Santa Cruz City 2005 Urban Water Management Plan, UCSC’s water consumption is about 5% of the total demand from the Santa Cruz Water Department. Conservation efforts on campus have cut per-person use to levels far below those in the city. Nonetheless, Santa Cruz residents have expressed concerns about the effects of UCSC expansion on the water supply.

Soquel Creek Water District

Soquel Creek Water District (which includes Capitola, Soquel, Aptos, Rio Del Mar and La Selva) serves approximately 38,000 customers through 14,100 connections in four service areas within mid-Santa Cruz County. Ninety percent of their customers are residential.

The District faces seawater intrusion into its groundwater aquifer due to years of chronic overpumping. Unlike Santa Cruz, Soquel gets 100% of its water from ground wells. This is because its surface resources, Aptos Creek and Soquel Creek, do not provide adequate flows for water agency use. It is estimated that the district is currently consuming 30% beyond its sustainable limit—about 1.25 million gallons per day. This amount constitutes, in effect, a current shortfall in regional water supplies, and it is the amount of water this workshop seeks to replace.

Complicating its overdraft problem, Soquel has a large number of private well owners who live along Old San Jose Road and environs. The water district currently has no power to regulate these private well owners, even though their usage directly affects a public resource. In the past, the District has proposed metering private wells. At least one private well owner showed up to the public meeting on the topic brandishing a firearm, proving once again that "water is for fighting."

Aquifer Overdraft: A Regional Problem

Soquel is not the first place in the Monterey Bay area to experience aquifer overdraft and seawater intrusion. In 2008, Santa Cruz County announced a state of emergency for the Pajaro Valley/Watsonville area. The Pajaro Valley Water Management Authority built a recycled water plant near the Pajaro River to deal with this emergency.

Because of its long and intensive agricultural history, Salinas started experiencing seawater intrusion as early as the 1940s. In response, the Monterey County Water Authority constructed Lake Nacimiento near the headwaters of the Salinas River. The lake is in neighboring San Luis Obispo County but is operated under a joint powers agreement. It was completed in 1960. Monterey has since had to build recycled water facilities as well to deal with increased water demands.

Recycled Water

Recycled water is sewer water that is extensively treated before being reused for non-drinking purposes such as irrigation of crops or playing fields. While it has been proven to have no negative health effects (and is in fact consumed by people in some parts of the world), the California Legislature has not yet approved it for human consumption in the state.

The technology behind recycled water and desalinated water are nearly identical, and if direct potable use were to be approved by the California Legislature, a Santa Cruz/Soquel desalination plant could be converted to a recycled water plant.

According to the 2010 white paper Opportunities and Limitations for Recycled Water Use, Santa Cruz Water Department & Soquel Creek Water District, recycled water is not currently feasible for Santa Cruz and Soquel because the areas do not have sufficient agriculture or large recreational spaces in high concentration that could use the water produced. In 2000, the Santa Cruz Water Department evaluated a water swap agreement with North Coast farms wherein farmers would send water from their ground wells to the city of Santa Cruz in exchange for recycled water. However, it ultimately proved too litigious, and ground supplies from the North Coast would be inadequate starting in the second year of a multi-year drought. Additionally, many of the farmers rejected the idea of using recycled water on their organic crops.

Conservation So Far

Soquel and Santa Cruz have both won recognition for their excellent conservation programs. At 56 gallons per person per day, the average water use in Santa Cruz is roughly half that of the statewide average of 111 gallons per person per day. Many have pointed out that Australians use even less—just 30 gallons per person per day—and that there is still opportunity for greater savings.

The annual Community Assessment Project (CAP), which is funded by the United Way of Santa Cruz County and conducted by Applied Survey Research, studies numerous indicators of community health, from education to youth violence to healthy eating. It also has a section on water conservation. In 2011, it found that 80% of respondents were already using low-flow shower heads and 71% had low-flow toilets.

Conservation is part of both agencies' Integrated Water Plans:

Soquel Creek Water District Conservation Rebates

Santa Cruz Water Department Residential Conservation Rebates


After years of independent research into alternative supply options, Soquel Creek and Santa Cruz partnered to consider a jointly operated desalination plant. The combined study group is called scwd2, referencing the two agencies' common initials. This cooperatively run 2.5 mgd facility could be ramped up to generate 4.5 mgd to meet future needs. It is currently anticipated to be run at half capacity, or 1.25 mgd, during normal (non-drought) years to allow the Soquel aquifer to recover and halt seawater intrusion. During drought years it would run at full capacity to supply Santa Cruz as well.

Desalination plants are energy-intensive operations that rely on a system of pumps that force seawater through ever-finer filters until salt and impurities are removed. They also require seawater intake mechanisms and ultimately create a salty brine (what is left over after desalination) that must be disposed of. These and other aspects of the project are currently being evaluated in an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The Draft EIR was released on May 13, along with an accompanying Community Guide, which offers a more succinct version of the material covered. Due to the state-mandated process, comments on the Draft EIR must be mailed in using this form.

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  • J. M. Brown
    Reporter, Santa Cruz Sentinel
  • Brad Kava
    Editor, Santa Cruz Patch
  • Bill Kocher
    Director, SC Water Department
  • Rick Longinotti
    Desal Alternatives
  • John Ricker
    SC County Water Resource Division Director
  • Hilary Bryant
  • Martin Bernal
    City Manager