Rosemary Menard testified in Washington on May 31.
Rosemary Menard testified in Washington on May 31.
(Via Rosemary Menard)
Opinion from Community Voices

I went to Washington to talk about the looming crisis of water; here’s what I told Congress

We might be on the cusp of a breakthrough to help maintain water services for all, writes Rosemary Menard, director of the City of Santa Cruz’s water department, which provides water to all residents of the city of Santa Cruz. Or we might be unable to keep water affordable for everyone in our community and reinvest in our water delivery system. Menard went to Washington on May 31 to explain her plea for federal funding for Santa Cruz County and other California communities. Here, she explains what she said and why.

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It’s not often that water professionals like me get to walk the halls of Congress to represent our communities — let alone get to testify before a committee. But that’s exactly what happened in May when California U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla invited me to Washington to testify about water affordability before a Senate subcommittee on fisheries, water and wildlife.

I felt inspired to take up Sen. Padilla’s invitation because I believe Santa Cruz is the perfect model of why we need to address the water affordability issue.

There is a crisis looming for water providers — including the Santa Cruz Water Department. The problem is basic: How can we maintain the reliability of our systems without making water unaffordable to those least able to pay?

That’s because water infrastructure is expensive. For many agencies, infrastructure is failing and in need of significant reinvestment.

Without outside government financial support, costs to ensure that water is safe and reliable will all be borne by ratepayers. Especially in the case of small and rural communities, those costs will simply become unaffordable.

In Santa Cruz, we have seen this crisis coming. It’s why we have aggressively pursued grant opportunities and low-interest loans — like the recent Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan we received for $128 million.

Infrastructure, climate challenges

But with over $600 million in projects needed to secure our community’s water future, even Santa Cruz’s rates have been increasing at a sharp pace for the past decade.

In short, we need to fix the water system.

If we don’t make these investments, we will ultimately end up with deferred maintenance that causes our system to completely fail. We need to raise rates, but we also need to make sure to take the steps we can to ensure everyone has equitable access to water.

I joined two other water professionals to testify about why federal investment in water matters. The other speakers came from the National Rural Water Association, a nonprofit that supports water and wastewater professionals in small communities, and the Central Valley-based Community Water Center, which is working to end the drinking water crisis for farmworkers.

It was truly an honor to represent utilities trying to do the job that needs to be done but struggling to afford it.

I shared our community’s story with senators, and I’d like to share it with Santa Cruz water customers and Lookout readers, too.

Below are excerpts from what I told our senators.

Rosemary Menard explains Santa Cruz water issues to a Senate committee.
Rosemary Menard explains Santa Cruz water issues to a Senate committee.
(Via Rosemary Menard)

The Santa Cruz water system serves just under 100,000 customers through about 27,000 connections, and all water supply is locally sourced; unlike most counties, we are not connected to any of California’s federal or state water supplies or infrastructure.

We in Santa Cruz County are “an island,” where we are reliant on just the water here — no pipeline is coming with Sierra snowmelt, for example.

We own, operate and maintain a water system with a replacement value of over $1 billion that includes:

  • a dam and reservoir in the Santa Cruz Mountains;
  • 50-plus miles of untreated water transmission pipelines;
  • several water diversion structures;
  • a large surface water treatment plant;
  • two well fields;
  • more than 250 miles of distribution system pipelines;
  • 15 treated-water storage tanks.

We protect public health by treating and delivering the water we produce to comply with state and federal drinking water standards. This covers dozens of contaminants, and we routinely monitor for dozens more.

Santa Cruz’s water customers already face challenges related to water affordability.

We need a major reinvestment in our water system to address aging infrastructure, improve supply reliability, adapt to climate change and comply with current and anticipated regulatory mandates. Some of those improvements include pipeline replacement, improvements to the water treatment plant and investment in new water options, such as aquifer storage and recovery.

Most of the water system’s major facilities were constructed before 1960 and have reached the end of their useful lives.

Santa Cruz is experiencing significant impacts of changing climate in the form of longer, deeper and more frequent drought conditions that put us at risk of running out of water, as well as extreme wet weather events like this year’s storms and those of 2017, resulting in crippling damage to infrastructure.

Adding to our infrastructure and climate challenges is the cost of complying with California and federal water quality regulations.

Prioritizing affordability

As part of Santa Cruz’s commitment to meeting all current and future regulatory requirements, we are working on a project with an estimated construction cost of $158 million to upgrade our water treatment process and facilities. This project is just one example of increasing costs that will ultimately be borne by our customers — further exacerbating water affordability challenges for those least able to pay.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla shakes hands with Rosemary Menard.
U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla shakes hands with Rosemary Menard.
(Via Rosemary Menard)

Unfortunately, providing adequate ratepayer assistance to our low-income customers is not something that Santa Cruz can do on its own.

Thanks to Proposition 218, California is one of a handful of states that statutorily prohibits publicly owned water systems from using rate revenues to support rate assistance programs for low-income customers. Because water rates must be proportional to the cost of service, we can’t offer lower rates to people depending on what they can pay.

Without access to rate revenues, we simply do not have the resources to offer meaningful assistance on our own to our customers who need it.

To assist low-income customers, SCWD has used available federal and state resources for pandemic impacts, such as the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, which offers a one-time payment of up to $15,000 for water customers who are behind on their bills. These single payments are helpful, but only a short-term fix. A permanent federal program is needed to ensure that all customers can maintain water service.

Santa Cruz’s affordability challenges are not unique. We have stepped up to the challenge in undertaking a major reinvestment in our water system, but I know that many of our nation’s water utilities are facing similar reinvestment needs.

Ongoing funding for a federal water rate assistance program will help both utilities and customers alike as we make these investments in our nation’s critical infrastructure and continue our important work to protect our citizens’ public health.

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 nearly a decade. Her previous piece for Lookout appeared in February.