While Silicon Valley copes with its dependence on imported water, our neighbors in Santa Cruz are striving to rely entirely on their local water supply.
State and federal politics play an enormous role in supplying San Jose with water, mostly brought in from outside the county. As a player in the statewide water market that extends from San Diego to the Oregon border, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and local water retailers, like San Jose Water Company, are constantly reminded of what a game of chance that can be.
Meanwhile, Santa Cruz city staff and its highly engaged community are now working together to determine which local water supply options its City Council should pursue. A truly resilient water system can supply local residents and tourists with enough water to survive and even thrive in the face of growing demand, a shifting climate and the shrinking Sierra snowpack that threatens most other California cities.
As a member of the review panel for the recently formed Santa Cruz Water Supply Advisory Committee, I can testify that their approach to planning represents a dramatic shift in the way water is managed in California. In fact, in the 42 years I have been involved in local water politics in Santa Clara Valley, I have never witnessed anything like the level of community engagement I am now seeing in Santa Cruz.
To be fair, Santa Cruz’ commitment to this collaborative effort is borne more out of necessity than camaraderie. While San Jose continues to irrigate its lawns and parks and golf courses during the present drought—thanks to 20 million gallons per day of recycled water distributed throughout our community—Santa Cruz residents and businesses are limited to strict allocations of drinking water for all purposes. Those who go over the limit must either attend a four-hour “water school,” which is like traffic school but educates locals about their dire water conditions, or pay punitively priced water bills that can exceed $1,000 a month. By contrast, San Jose Water Company charges residential customers—who are precluded from using recycled water on their lawns by out-dated health regulations—on milder “tiered rates.” These rates discourage high-volume water use.
The Santa Cruz community clearly seeks a more resilient water supply, and replacing thirsty lawns with climate-appropriate landscapes is just one of many options they are considering. More important, their process encourages everyone to minimize water consumption and find alternative approaches to balancing supply and demand. This is better than the “concrete and steel” solutions proposed by the large engineering consulting companies that traditionally dominate the conversation.
As a result of this inclusive approach, last week the advisory committee received more than five dozen publicly-proposed solutions to the water crisis. The committee is now in the process of digesting the whole experience and producing a multi-layered view of possibilities, as more and more people are engaged in the conversation and the community is committed to "getting it right."
The elephant in the room is the “beached” seawater desalination facility proposed prior to this process started. It is described in an earlier Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR). That report inspired project opponents to put the matter to a plebiscite, which determined (by a three-to-one margin) that such a project would have to receive more than 50 percent approval in a direct popular vote before it could be designed or built. At this point, such an outcome seems unlikely.
Once a new plan that includes consensus-based water projects is identified, the Santa Cruz City Council must prepare a new EIR disclosing environmental impacts. Ironically, that EIR must also consider ocean desalination as an alternative, as well as the “no project” alternative of the community’s perilous status quo.
Whatever happens, the Santa Cruz community will undoubtedly have a much fuller set of tools with which to build their future water security. And as long as the present drought persists—indications are it will only get worse in coming years—we may soon find ourselves in Santa Cruz’ flip-flops.