Santa Cruz needs more water; city’s new policy keeps desalination, recycled wastewater on the table

The San Lorenzo River and its watershed provides much of the water used by Santa Cruzans.
The San Lorenzo River and its watershed provides much of the water used by Santa Cruzans.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Desalination, the process of filtering seawater into clean drinking water, has had a rocky past in Santa Cruz. However, a new city policy says the technology, among other strategies, could come in handy in an increasingly parched future.

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Climate change is forcing a strategy change when it comes to water in Santa Cruz. No longer will the focus be on furthering water conservation — something the city is already a shining example of in an increasingly thirsty state. The goal moving forward: finding more water.

A new policy document, unanimously approved by the Santa Cruz City Council last Tuesday, essentially acts as a formal recognition that the city needs to increase its water supply if it is going to maintain business as usual into the future. By 2027, the city wants to boost its water supply by 500 million gallons — a 20% increase over current water demand. However, unlike past water policy documents, the latest plan stops short of recommending a path forward. Instead, it proposes four options — among them, desalination and recycling wastewater — and delays the community fight over the proper project for a future date.

For California, 2022 has redefined how the state thinks about water. Responding to a drought emergency this spring, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest supplier of treated water in the U.S., issued unprecedented water restrictions for its 6 million residential customers. The agency urged residents to cut water demand by 35%. The goal was to cut the average personal use from 125 gallons per day to 80 gallons per day.

Santa Cruz is isolated from the state water system that serves much of California but nonetheless faces the same serious water-supply questions posed by climate change. Unlike other parts of the state, local officials here no longer see extreme water restrictions, such as those recently employed in Southern California, as part of the long-term solution. This isn’t because they oppose water conservation. Rather, officials say Santa Cruzans have been such efficient water users that any restrictions on shower times or garden irrigation would offer only marginal relief to the current balance of supply and demand.

Santa Cruz’s average residential demand is 45 gallons per person per day combined indoor and outdoor use — nearly half of the target set earlier this year by the Metropolitan Water District. Twenty years in the making, this level of water conservation is by all metrics remarkable, yet not enough, local officials say, to comfortably sustain Santa Cruz into an unpredictable water future.

“The [water sources] that are here are groundwater, surface water, recycled water in some form, and seawater. That’s it, ” Water Director Rosemary Menard told the city council. “These are the ones we have to work with. I don’t think any of them are at a place where they can be taken off the table. We need to keep our options open because this is too important to artificially limit what we can do.”

In other words, if Santa Cruz is going to sustain its drinking water needs amid a changing climate, the city and its residents must remain open to recycled wastewater systems like the one used on the Monterey Peninsula, as well as a desalination plant that taps into the drought-proof Monterey Bay.

The California Coastal Commission voted 8-2 to approve the plant in Marina, despite the ecological risks to the Monterey...

The other two paths forward offered by the policy include collecting excess surface water during wet years and storing it in underground basins, or recycling wastewater to use strictly for irrigation, which would loosen up the demand for clean drinking water.

Desalination, the energy-intensive and expensive process of filtering seawater into clean drinking water, is historically an unpopular strategy in Santa Cruz. In 2013, the city and neighboring Soquel Creek Water District were drawing up plans for a regional desalination plant. Local law requires desalination projects to be approved by the voters; however, before the proposal even made it to the ballot, the Santa Cruz City Council pulled it due to widespread opposition.

Desalination has since remained on the back burner in Santa Cruz, but is seeing a renaissance in California amid growing concerns around drought. Gov. Gavin Newsom has come out in favor of desalination projects. The California Coastal Commission, a government agency often opposed to the idea, approved desalination plants in Orange County and Monterey County earlier this year.

Right now, 100% of Santa Cruz’s water supply falls from the sky. About 95% of the water is drawn from surface water — much of it from the San Lorenzo River — and the other 5% comes from underground aquifers. If the rain slows to an annual sprinkling, as climate models predict is possible, Santa Cruz will be in trouble.

“This is the Achilles’ heel for our water system because storage is our problem,” Menard said. “Filling up [reservoirs] when it’s wet is great, but if you have a six- or 10-year period then there is no chance to refill it and that is a big problem for us.”

Councilmember Sandy Brown echoed some concerns from the public about the policy’s language that further conservation was no longer a realistic solution to water supply issues; however, she acknowledged that the future held serious debates about how to move forward.

“We are going to be debating projects,” Brown said, looking at the rest of her city council colleagues. “This [policy] is a way to enshrine, codify a framework for making decisions in the future, but those will be coming to us.”

Councilmember Donna Meyers said the city’s new policy would be a “model for California.”

“We’re dependent on what comes out of the sky,” Meyers said. “Without knowing what that looks like, we now have a policy that says we’re going to be adaptable and we’re going to be strategic. …This is groundbreaking work.”

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