Water coming out of tap

Water 101: With big changes afoot countywide, everything you need to know about what’s coming out of your tap

As climate change takes root, several water districts are taking steps to prepare for the future. And even without the added stressor of rainfall changes, maintaining a steady, clean, affordable supply of water to customers is a difficult feat.

Water has always been a precious and scarce resource in California, and the Santa Cruz region is no exception. As a warming climate sparks changes in rainfall patterns, local supplies are under more stressors than ever.

Anticipating this future, and dealing with expensive, aging and, in some cases, fire-damaged infrastructure, many local government water districts are making or planning big changes.

With that in mind, now is a good time to understand how water is managed in the area, where it comes from, and how water issues vary depending on where you live, including whether shortages might become more prevalent, whether last year’s CZU fires might lead to water pollution, and how much everyone is paying for the resource.

A locally fed supply, and the challenges that come with that

Unlike many counties in California, Santa Cruz County’s dozen-plus local government water agencies do not rely on state or federal water sourcing. Instead, water is sourced from a combination of local groundwater basins, which make up 80% of the supply, and reservoirs and streams, which comprise the remaining 20%.

Independence means the county is “somewhat insulated” from droughts affecting the rest of the state, according to the county’s Department of Environmental Health.

But the county is still often in a precarious situation as local rainfall is almost never enough to meet demand. This means groundwater levels are in a long, slow decline, and surface water is highly sensitive to each year’s rainfall.

The future looks likely to be punctuated by more severe drought, and more intense rainfall — even though it looks possible the average overall precipitation will remain the same.

These wild swings are hard on water systems. “The way the water comes is almost as important as the amount of water total,” Sierra Ryan, the interim county water manager said. “Having several dry years followed by intensive wet years is not going to have the same impact to the water system as averaging that out over time.”

During very wet years, “we might get the same amount of water, we might even get more water, but we can’t do anything with it in those big storm events,” Ryan explained.

When all the water comes at once, it doesn’t have the opportunity to percolate into the ground and recharge groundwater basins. “That’s huge in this county, because most of the residents of the county get their water from groundwater,” Ryan said.

Surface water (water from streams and reservoirs like Loch Lomond) is also at risk, as higher temperatures mean more evaporation, and less ground water can affect surface water levels too.

Carbonera Creek in Scotts Valley
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Even in ideal conditions, a difficult task

Even without the added stressor of climate change, maintaining a steady, clean, affordable supply of water to customers is a difficult feat.“It’s on demand, high quality anytime, unlimited quantity,” said Piret Harmon, the general manager of the Scotts Valley Water District. “You want to get up at two o’clock in the morning and you want to take a nice hot bath, it’s there.” Making that happen, and maintaining infrastructure for it, is expensive.

“We have about 170 miles of distribution pipe to move our water around our service area, and we aim to replace a couple miles a year,” said Beau Kayser, of the city of Watsonville’s Water District. “It’s a million and a half dollars per mile.”

The science and engineering behind what comes out of your tap not only is mind-boggling, but another complicating factor is the collection of government agencies that manage water supplies for the county’s 276,000 residents. In all, there are 13 entities that serve the population, each facing its own series of challenges. Among them:

• The Loch Lomond reservoir which stores water for the city of Santa Cruz during the dry season, is currently at a 74% capacity. The city’s new water contingency plan states that “If winter rains have not replenished Loch Lomond’s storage,” peak season usage reductions are applied. Representatives from the City of Santa Cruz have said restrictions are possible this summer.

• On the government side of things, the San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley water districts are considering a merger, to improve efficiency and possibly prevent rates from increasing too steeply in the future.

• The Soquel Creek Water District plans to spend about $90 million on a project to recharge its groundwater basin with recycled water.

Here’s a look at the largest water districts countywide some of the major issues they’re facing. Average monthly rates are taken from a comparison produced by the Soquel Creek district this month:

A map of the major water supply agencies in the county.
A map of the major water supply agencies in the county.
(Sierra Ryan, County of Santa Cruz)

City of Santa Cruz Water Department

  • Number of customers served: 97,417
  • Approximate cost: $65 (average monthly bill within city limits), $75 (average monthly bill for customers outside the city)
  • Current issues: “Climate change is really the priority item,” city Water Director Rosemary Menard said. “But also, we have a situation where, you know, as I mentioned, we have aging infrastructure. And we have a lot of work to do.” Multiple multimillion-dollar projects are underway, including $69 million of maintenance work at Loch Lomond. “It’s a generational reinvestment in the water system,” Menard said.

Scotts Valley Water District

  • Number of customers served: 10,709
  • Approximate cost: $75 (average monthly bill)
  • Current issues: The possibility of a merger between the Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo water districts is top of mind for district leadership. “How can I provide high quality water? How can I have resiliency and sustainability and have an infrastructure in good shape and do it at a reasonable the lowest cost that I possibly can?,” said Piret Harmon, the general manager. “I’ve done a lot of things here, just within one district, and then like any business you look at, ‘Are we too small. Are we too expensive per unit?”

Soquel Creek Water District

  • Number of customers served: 40,632
  • Approximate cost: $85 (average monthly bill)
  • Current issues: “Our primary water challenges are (1) a critically overdrafted groundwater basin and (2) seawater intrusion occurring into our groundwater supply along our coastline,” Melaine Mow Shumacher, a communications manager at Soquel Creek, wrote to Lookout. “Our groundwater supply, the Santa Cruz Mid County Basin, which is the sole source of supply in the mid-county region, was designated by the state in 2014 as critically overdrafted.” As the groundwater level is depleted, saltwater intrudes. Soquel Creek Water District “has been in Stage 3 Water Shortage and Groundwater Emergency since 2014 due to our community’s long-term groundwater supply shortage and the threat of seawater intrusion to our water supply.” Schumacher said. To ameliorate the threat of intrusion, the Soquel Creek Water District has begun an ambitious, $90 million project to recharge the basin with recycled water.

City of Watsonville Water Department

  • Number of customers served: 65,966
  • Approximate cost: $58 (average monthly bill)
  • Current issues: Infrastructure is top of mind for water manager Beau Kayser. ”Generally speaking, you build something and we hope to get 50 years out of it. The truth is we’ve got stuff older than that,” Kayser said. ”We’ve got one well that’s close to 100 years old.” Climate change could make flooding more of an issue as the sea level rises. “We are somewhat of a coastal agency, not a lot of our infrastructure lies in a low lying area, but there are scenarios that would be susceptible to a massive flood,” Kayser said. The district is working with the Army Corp of Engineers and the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency to try to rebuild the river levy.

San Lorenzo Valley Water District

  • Number of customers served: 23,700
  • Approximate cost: $105 (average monthly bill)
  • Current issues: The CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned through the San Lorenzo Valley, decimating miles of raw water pipeline and damaging surface water and water storage infrastructure.

After the fire, sampling revealed volatile organic compounds in the water of fire-impacted areas. VOCs “have not been detected in any mainline samples since September 16th, 2020,” according to the district’s year-end report, “however the SLVWD plans to monitor the distribution system for VOCs in the long term.”

Additionally, a large number of residents, 21,000, rely on private wells. The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency serves agricultural customers and maintains groundwater recharge, but does not serve residential consumers.

Water rate comparison chart
(Soquel Creek Water District)


8:56 PM, Mar. 01, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Scotts Valley water district manager. Her name is Piret Harmon, not Piret Brown.