By Wes Sims | KUSP News -
It might seem ironic that the most visible symbol of the Santa Cruz Water Department is not the San Lorenzo River, from which the city’s drinking water is drawn. But it’s the tanks and towers of the city’s waste water treatment plant at Neary Lagoon. Jim Bentley, a former superintendent for water production for the city hopes the treated waste water could contribute to a solution to Santa Cruz’s water supply problem.
“The water leaving a tertiary waste water treatment plant, that removes all the solids, that removes nitrogen, it’s put out in the ocean a very clear looking water, disinfected, there would be very low coliform count in it,” Bentley says.
Currently the city’s plant does not achieve a tertiary degree of treatment, and using waste water for drinking purposes is illegal. But the city of Santa Cruz does have a legal obligation to provide adequate water for threatened fish. Recently regulators increased the amount of water the city would have to leave in to river for fish during a drought. Bentley believes waste water added downstream from the municipal water supply can meet the habitat obligation. This is one of the sources he hopes the city can use instead of desalination.
“The city has a three-legged, that’s the city’s words, theirs is a three-legged stool based on curtailment, conservation, and desalination,” Bentley says.” Well, we have a multi-legged stool. We would expect more conservation than the city’s asking for right now.”
The Challenge for the SCWD: A 2-Year Drought
Leading the push for desalination is Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher. He’s forged a joint operating agreement with the Soquel Creek Water District for a desalination plant that would address Soquel’s over-drafted groundwater basin, and the big issue that’s driving the narrative for Santa Cruz: the threat of a two-year drought. Kocher says if Santa Cruz were to go through another drought like 1976 and 77, the average homeowner would have to cut water usage by half during the second year.
“We’re not particularly worried about winter,” Kocher says.”But we’re worried about a 210-day period in the summer in droughts. And so we need a project that will give us water when we need water.”
Measure P organizer Rick Longinotti questions the process.
“The city of Santa Cruz in 2005 set on desalination as their preferred options,” he says. “ And since that time they haven’t spent any time or money investigating alternatives, and so we’re trying to re-open that discussion.”
Cutting Back Earlier
Longinotti says the city’s worst case scenario is based on an operations policy in which there is no attempt to cut back on water usage during normal or mildly dry years, or maintain an adequate backup supply in Loch Lomond Reservoir.
Longinotti hopes to : “turn the city’s attention more to what can be done instead of desalination.”
Bentley: “We would also suggest that the city’s water customers are willing to do more curtailment than the city is expecting of them.”
When the city asks, residents use less water. Longinotti says last year, when the city asked for restrictions, residents saved enough so that if a severe drought had begun this year the city would have started about fourteen hundred acre feet ahead of its worst case scenario. That’s about what the city hopes to produce in a drought with a desalination plant. Longinotti notes the desal plan ignores potential supply from a multi-district water network under consideration.
Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher says the city has considered its options and a desalination plant is the only plan that meets its needs.
“We’ve looked at the environmental implications, we’ve looked at cost,” Kocher says.” We’ve looked at ways we can minimize and mitigate environmental impacts, including marine issues, including energy, greenhouse gas emissions cost.”
The next step for the City of Santa Cruz is an environmental impact report. If that is certified by the end of the year, voters could decide the issue the following year. Kocher expects the earliest a desalination plant could be producing water would be 2016.