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

Will climate change make water unaffordable in Santa Cruz? The city’s water director weighs in

Lookout sat down with Rosemary Menard, the longtime water director for the city of Santa Cruz, for a discussion on climate change and the need for investment in water infrastructure here and throughout the state.

Rosemary Menard, water director for the city of Santa Cruz, knows all too well the daunting scenario the city is facing: Not only does Santa Cruz rely on its own precious and fluctuating water supply, but it also has aging infrastructure that needs fixing at a time when many residents are already cost-burdened in the face of ever-increasing utility bills.

“It’s a bigger conversation than just what we’re going to pay for water in Santa Cruz, it’s more of a conversation that has to do with how we’re going to deal with the fact that Santa Cruz isn’t the only water utility in the country facing these kinds of major needs for reinvestment, at the same time that we’ve already raised our rates pretty consistently over the last couple of decades,” Menard told Lookout.

The need for action to protect every drop of water available is already obvious: this year is shaping up to be one of the four driest on record. The lowest water years ever have been 1977, which was the lowest year in modern recording, 1976, and 2014.

According to Menard, this year is tracking a little bit better than 1976 or 2014, but is still “definitely in the lower part of the critically dry characteristics,” which is especially damaging because it’s the second dry year in a row.

Santa Cruz water bar graph
(City of Santa Cruz)

To respond to the bad water year, the water commission recommended water restrictions in a meeting this week, and the city council will vote on them next week. This will be only the first level of restrictions. Menard said most residential users won’t be heavily affected, as by and large the amount of water households use is on par or less than the rationed amount of 500 cubic feet.

According to climate projections prepared by the city, and informed by recent experience, rainfall patterns are expected to change significantly in Santa Cruz and Northern California in the coming years. Both dry periods and intensely wet weather will occur more often, and each are challenging to water infrastructure in different ways. The challenges of dry years are obvious, but during very wet winters and intense storms, like atmospheric rivers, the water comes so quickly that it’s hard to capture. It can also be full of dirt and other suspended material that makes it hard to treat.

As Menard, who has worked for the city of Santa Cruz’s water department for seven years, looks to the future, climate change and the need for investment in Santa Cruz’s water infrastructure is top of mind. Several significant projects — repairing the dam at Loch Lomond reservoir, and replacing a key water main under the San Lorenzo River — are already underway or recently completed.

Here’s an edited transcript of her back and forth with Lookout:

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Lookout: What level of water restrictions are being proposed for this year and how will they affect customers?

Menard: For single family residential customers, which is something like 45% or 50% of our total demand, the average use is six CCF (600 cubic feet). The median number is five CCF and the mode, which means the most common number is four CCF.

We’re proposing stage one restrictions and what that calls for is five CCF, for a family of three. If you have more people in your household, there’s a way for you to get a higher allocation, and it’s not onerous. The goal is if you’re using six, you can ratchet down a little bit and get to five. But in many cases, those people who are already conserving and especially if they have a household that is three or fewer, they’re going to be able to comply with this without any problem.

Lookout: In what ways is Santa Cruz city water vulnerable to climate change? What kinds of infrastructure changes does that require?

Menard: We are vulnerable on the dry side of the climate change spectrum, like this year, the drought situation. But we’re also vulnerable in the wet end of the spectrum, and it appears to us from looking at the data and living the life that we live that we’re getting more ‘dry dries’ and more ‘wet wet.’ The stuff in the middle that used to be the bread and butter that you can depend on, that most years would be “normal,” we’re not seeing that part of the spectrum much anymore.

We’re getting more ‘dry dries’ and more ‘wet wet.’ The stuff in the middle that used to be the bread and butter that you can depend on, that most years would be ‘normal,’ we’re not seeing that part of the spectrum much anymore.

— Rosemary Menard, Santa Cruz water director

The infrastructure pieces of it, in particular the pipelines and some of the issues related to water treatment, are really difficult in the really wet, wet parts of the spectrum. Then the supply reliability pieces of it obviously are big issues in the dry dry parts of the spectrum.

Lookout: It seems like the obvious conclusion of the different things you’re talking about is that water in Santa Cruz will get more expensive as the climate changes.

Menard: If the only source that you have to pay for [investment] is local revenue, which largely is the case, then that is inevitably true. There’s no free lunch here. I will tell you that I don’t think we’re unique in what we’re facing in terms of the need to reinvest in our water system facilities and supply reliability in light of climate change and, you know, the fact that a lot of our things are old now.

The water treatment plant and the dam that we have and the pipelines that connect the two [are about 60 years old]. That’s getting kind of long in the tooth for these kinds of facilities. If we want them to support our community in the next 50 or 60 years, we’re going to have to reinvest in them.

The Loch Lomond reservoir, which helps feed Santa Cruz's water supply.
The Loch Lomond reservoir, which helps feed Santa Cruz’s water supply.
(Santa Cruz City Water Department)

But we’re very actively engaged in talking both at the state and the federal level, talking to delegation folks, legislators, staffers at the EPA and State Water Resources Control Board to talk to them about what our community is facing, and about the needs that we have, that really will make water difficult to afford for a lot of people in our community unless there’s some relief of some sort. It’s a bigger conversation than just ‘what we’re gonna pay for water in Santa Cruz,’ it’s more of a conversation that has to do with how we’re going to deal with the fact that Santa Cruz isn’t the only water utility in the country facing these kinds of major need for reinvestment, at the same time that we’ve already raised our rates pretty consistently over the last couple of decades.

Lookout: Could we be reaching a point soon where water rates will be unaffordable for residents because they need to be so high to cover infrastructure investments?

Menard: It’s like a lot of things that are financially related. There are folks that you could raise the rates quite a bit and they might feel it, but they could afford it, and there are folks that you could raise the rates quite a bit and the bottom line is, they won’t be able to afford it and then what will happen?

We already have, to some degree, that kind of issue in our community. It’s not widespread but when you talk about continuing year over year rate increases in order to support this capital program, which is really the only way we have to fund this stuff at the moment, then you have to ask yourself, at what point are you putting at risk equitable access to safe drinking water?

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Lookout: How would you characterize the current water year in the historical context?

Menard: The three worst years on record are 1977 — that’s the lowest sort of modern year that we’ve had and then 1976, then 2014. This year is tracking a little bit better than 1976 or 2014, but definitely in the lower part of the critically dry characteristics, and it’s the second dry year in a row. We had a dry year last year that wasn’t critically dry, but was still quite dry.

Loch Lomond is hanging in there, it didn’t fill this winter. But nevertheless, the total overall demand for the entire system is down from anything that it’s been historically. Really since [about] 2015-2014, we’re 30% down from what we’ve been historically even with population growth and whatever new development has occurred. That situation makes the risk of “running out of water” smaller because people are using less of it all the time, but it also doesn’t make the problem of not having enough storage to get us through dry years go away.

Lookout: What can be done to try and get us through the dry years, especially if they occur more often in the future?

Menard: We really are working hard on trying to move the supply augmentation strategy forward so that ultimately we will address that supply reliability issue and make us less vulnerable in dry or multiple dry years. That is the focus and what’s going on this year is purely pragmatic — it’s very dry, we need to ask people to be cautious, even though they already are cautious.

If we have another dry year in a row next year, then it’s going to get worse, [but] if we have a halfway normal year then it will get better. That’s always the question that overshadows the decision that has to get made right now. If someone can tell me when it’s going to rain, fall, winter, spring, and how much, I can tell you the perfect decision about what to do now. But I don’t have that information, so I make the best decision I can with the long range view of recognizing that at the end of the day I can’t let the system run out of water.