KUSP Reports: Environment

Recycled Water for Fish and Other Desal Alternatives

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* Normal Sources - San Lorenzo River + Loch Lomond, etc. ** Other Alternatives: Using treaded waste water to provide fish habitat; Increase the degree if restrictions to water customers; Transfer from a county-wide network of waste districts.

* Normal Sources:  San Lorenzo River + Loch Lomond, etc.
** Other Sources: Using treated waste water to provide fish habitat; Increased restrictions to water customers; Transfers from a proposed county-wide network of water districts.

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.

Desalination: A Plan for Future Droughts

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sanlorenzoriverBy Wes Sims | KUSP News -
“This is Ocean Street Extension and the river doesn’t always look or sound like this, but in a nice winter like this one, it’s a rather nice little sound,” says Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher as we walked along the banks of the San Lorenzo River, the primary source of the city’s water supply.

“And if 90,000 acre feet moved down this river in one year that’s considered an average year. And already, from last October, we’re at 40,000 acre feet.”

An acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover an acre to a depth of a foot. Santa Cruz’s water district uses about 11,000 acre feet in a typical year. Usually the San Lorenzo River and the city’s wells provide enough. In dry years, the district has to let enough water flow down the river for fish to survive. Due to a recent order from the state, the amount or river water reserved for fish in dry years has increased. Meanwhile, the district can only take a limited amount from wells.

“If we had a drought today that looked like ’76-’77, we would be about 50% short for the average homeowner,” Kocher explains. “Just in terms of bathing, in terms of toilet flushing, in terms of outdoor irrigation, whatever they use water for. If they could imagine having half that amount available to them, that’s what would happen in a critically dry year.”

Dry Years are Where the Problem Lies

By imposing restrictions on water users, Kocher says the district can get usage down to about 9,500 acre feet. But the supply from the river and wells could fall 1,400 acre feet short.

“There’s really two things going on,” Kocher says. “One is that we are doing OK now in normal years. We’re not doing OK now in dry and critically dry years.”

Kocher’s plan has been to fill this drought-year gap with water from a 150 million-dollar desalination plant whose cost would be split with the Soquel Creek Water District. That district needs a new source to replace its well water supply or risk losing its wells to seawater intrusion. So during droughts, the Santa Cruz District would use the desalinated water to make up its supply gap. The rest of the time, the plant would provide water for the Soquel District. Taj Dufour, acting general manager for the Soquel Creek District explains the arrangement:

“Our plans are to pump this as frequently as we could to reduce our draw on the groundwater basin. And when the city needs it they would be in charge. So basically, whichever agency is using the plant would be responsible for the operational costs.”

A Rare Example of Cooperation

“In an era when you have two houses of congress that can’t talk across the aisle, it’s sort of a model for inter-agency, intergovernmental agency cooperation,” Kocher says.

But there’s plenty of disagreement outside the business model between the City of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek District. Santa Cruz voters in the November 2012 general election approved Measure P, requiring a future city-wide vote before the City of Santa Cruz can authorize a desalination plant. One of the organizers of Measure P was former electrical contractor Rick Longinotti, who is concerned in part about the contribution a plant would make to the district’s greenhouse gas footprint.

“it’s twelve times the energy to produce a gallon of water as our current water supply,” Longinotti says.

Longinotti wants the city to make more ambitious restrictions on water usage in dry years, rather than building a desalination plant.

Tomorrow during Morning Edition and All Things Considered we look at some of the ways desalination opponents propose for supplying water in droughts.