Santa Cruz’s water supply: Is growth the problem?
Santa Cruz’s population is using about the same amount of water in 2021 as in 1981, despite growing by about 30,000 people. New technologies, smarter landscaping and conservation have been the key to success. The only real solution to today’s water supply shortages is more supply.
Whenever Santa Cruz is in a drought, and particularly when residents are asked to conserve water, the topic of development invariably comes up – and rightly so. Customers want to know why they’re being asked to use less water when new developments are on the horizon.
The reality is that Santa Cruz has had a water supply issue for generations. The area first experienced severe water shortages in the 1970s and has endured drought conditions every few years since then. Weather patterns are only getting more severe with climate change, so we expect droughts and water shortages will continue to be an issue in our community.
The only real solution to water supply shortages is more supply. The Santa Cruz Water Department has been actively working on new strategies to increase water supply during dry periods, including aquifer storage and recovery, water exchanges, and more.
That said, let’s take a moment to unpack the impacts of development on the local water system and why a modest increase in our local housing supply is not a make-it-or-break-it moment for water supply.
Here’s a really important fact: Santa Cruz Water customers are using about the same amount of water in 2021 as they were in 1981. Surprised? Although there’s been a 44% increase in Santa Cruz’s population since 1981, there’s been a decrease of 45% in water use per person, per day, during the same timeframe. Here’s why that’s the case:
- Since the 1980s, plumbing codes have changed significantly and appliances have become significantly more efficient. There are several examples of this, most notably in newer toilets, washing machines and dishwashers.
- Many people have also traded thirsty, non-native landscapes in for drought-tolerant plants and gardens.
- UCSC use: in 2005, UCSC forecast they would double their student population by 2025 and increase their annual water use from 165 million gallons per year (mgy) to 349 mgy; however, in 2019 and with double the student population of 2005, UCSC was using just 160 mgy – 5 million gallons per year less than in 2005. Again, this is due to efficient plumbing, appliances and use.
During this same period of time, affordable housing has become more and more scarce in Santa Cruz. This has forced many essential Santa Cruz workers including teachers, nurses and first responders to travel longer and longer distances to find housing they can afford.
Water supply and affordable housing have become two priority issues for city leaders to address that, unfortunately, are perceived to be at odds with one another. The tension between the two issues is unnecessary, however, given the modest amount of housing that’s been approved and the negligible impact that the housing will have on our water supply.
The bottom line is that planned growth is not the problem. Santa Cruz’s drought-related water supply problems began decades ago, before many of us lived here. Climate change is exacerbating the local water supply issue, and that’s what the Water Department is focusing on.
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