I’m in charge of water for 98,000 people in Santa Cruz. Here is what I’d like you to know.

The Loch Lomond reservoir in drier times in June 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard is worried about our memory, specifically about what she calls our “weather memory whiplash.” That’s when we think our water crisis is over because of a few storms, like the ones we had in January. It’s not, she tells us here. In fact, ongoing climate change means our water crisis will likely get worse. “Future water rationing will allot only half as much water to families as water rationing of the past, and future rationing will include businesses,” she says. “That might be easier for an accountant, but not so much for a restaurant, brewery or hotel.”

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During the recent series of storms and atmospheric rivers, a neighbor who knows what my day job is mentioned, “California seems to be either parched or drowning.”

As director of the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, that statement hit home.

If you’ve been watching the news the past few weeks, you know California has gone from “extreme” and “exceptional” drought to historic floods. Meteorologists refer to this phenomenon as “weather whiplash,” where conditions go from one extreme to another, and California is the poster child for it.

As someone responsible for providing 98,000 people with a safe, clean, reliable water supply, I can tell you that both extremes are challenging for operating water systems. Particularly for communities like Santa Cruz, where 100% of our water supply comes from local rainfall.

Santa Cruz has experienced dry periods for decades, but the increase in and duration of droughts has jumped significantly during the past 15 years. Drought is a challenge not just from a water-supply perspective, but because it increases the threat of wildfire in our watersheds.

A fire in the Newell Creek watershed could have catastrophic effects on Santa Cruz’s water supply, with impacts on water quality and potential landslides and debris flows into the city’s only drinking-water reservoir, Loch Lomond.

Extreme storms present different challenges — in treating the turbid water that occurs naturally from these storms, as well as for maintaining the system’s pipes, pumps and tanks located in areas prone to flooding and landslides. (Watch this video to learn more about the impact of climate change on operating the water system.)

The direct challenges of managing a water system in extreme weather conditions aside, another challenge of deep concern to me is community “weather memory whiplash.”

This is a phenomenon where a community that suffers from ongoing water-supply shortages suddenly thinks the crisis is over after a few big storms.

Take Santa Cruz, for example — though Loch Lomond Reservoir is now full and spilling, we are not, by any means, out of the woods regarding the long-term reliability of Santa Cruz’s water supply.

When full, Loch Lomond holds only about one year’s worth of water supply, and in the past decade it’s filled only four times. It takes only a few back-to-back dry years to put us in real jeopardy of running out of water.

One of the reasons weather memory whiplash worries me is because memories of past impacts of water shortages won’t be comparable to future impacts from unreliable water supply. To borrow from an old Oldsmobile commercial, “it won’t be your father’s water shortage.”

Future water rationing will allot only half as much water to families as water rationing of the past, and future rationing will include businesses. That might be easier for an accountant, but not so much for a restaurant, brewery or hotel.

Given that Santa Cruz’s economy is tourism-based, rationing water for commercial uses could have economic consequences comparable to those of the pandemic.

This is why the City of Santa Cruz Water Department has spent the past several years working to secure the future of the community’s water supply.

The fundamentals of that work include learning how climate change will continue to affect water supply and production, modernizing the city’s water system to respond to those impacts, studying the most feasible ways to add water to our supply, and creating city policy to support the path to water security.

The Loch Lomond reservoir in June 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So far, we’ve invested about $200 million during the past five years in new infrastructure and in modernizing old infrastructure to improve its resiliency to the kind of extreme weather events that are becoming routine. For example, shoring up and replacing crucial pipelines in areas that are prone to landslides, like the pipeline from the reservoir to the treatment plant that broke in a landslide during the El Niño storms of 2017.

We are replacing the pipelines, intake structures and valves at Loch Lomond to ensure we will be able to fill and release water as efficiently as possible. We are replacing outdated equipment at the Graham Hill water treatment plant. We’re revising the city’s centuries-old water rights to give us flexibility in how we use and store water. And we are replacing broken and inefficient home water meters with conservation-friendly equipment that allows customers to monitor their water use.

We’ve studied several new ways to add water to the city’s supply, including storing excess winter water in local groundwater basins (when it’s available, like this year), and/or considering using purified, recycled water. A desalination project was shelved in 2013, but desalination remains on the table.

City councilmembers adopted a new policy in November that will ensure that the city can get on with the work to secure the community’s future water supply. The policy basically acknowledges the city’s long history of looking for solutions to water shortages and codifies steps to move forward, including some of what I have outlined. We are working on a website to explain this.

Our community has a history of using water efficiently, and this practice saved us during dry summers of the past. However, it isn’t enough to save us from many dry summers in a row.

The weather patterns we’ve seen over the past decade — back-to-back extremely dry years punctuated with a year or two of extreme storms here and there — are projected to increase over time. This means that we’re likely to experience different weather patterns than were in effect when much of the Santa Cruz water system was designed and constructed.

The city’s latest policy recognizes that in the months and years to come, Santa Cruz must add to its water supply.

Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We need to add supply not because of growth, and not because of frivolous use of water, but because the increasing variability of our water supply due to climate change exacerbates the system’s basic problem, which is inadequate storage.

The water system’s lack of storage was identified by the 2014 city council-appointed Water Supply Advisory Committee as the key challenge driving the need for supply augmentation. Weather conditions since the committee disbanded in 2015 have only further reinforced the reality of our vulnerability and the urgency of our need to act.

I hope Santa Cruz Municipal Utilities customers will follow the work the water department is doing to ensure that the future reliability of their drinking water is secure. A good way to stay informed is to join monthly city water commission meetings, which are held virtually. Progress on infrastructure projects underway can be found on our Projects in your Neighborhood webpage, and a list of all the projects completed and still to come can be found on our Capital Improvement Program webpage.

We want our community to know that we have a plan to respond to impacts of climate change, and to secure our water future.

Rosemary Menard is the water director for the City of Santa Cruz. She has over 40 years’ experience as a water utility executive, working in four states — California, Oregon (Portland), Nevada (Reno) and Washington (Seattle). She has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Washington. She has been Santa Cruz’s water director for nine years.

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