Preparing for ‘weather whiplash’ focus of county’s latest water resources status report

Loch Lomond, which stores water for the city of Santa Cruz
Loch Lomond, which stores water for the city of Santa Cruz, can’t always keep up with the kind of storms that hit in January.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors recently approved the latest Water Resources Status Report, and while the report comes out every year, this one focused heavily on preparing for the effects of climate change and “weather whiplash,” which includes heavy rains like the storm systems that hit in January.

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Santa Cruz County has approved a plan aimed to adapt the region’s water resources for climate change, a task made more urgent in the wake of January’s atmospheric rivers.

Last week, the board of supervisors approved the Santa Cruz County Water Resources Status Report for the most recent water year. The report lays out the updated priorities for the county’s Health Services Agency’s Water Resources Program, along with local water districts, partner agencies and nonprofits that focus on water management.

While the report, which comes out every year, was not commissioned specifically because of the storms, last month’s atmospheric rivers have highlighted the importance of shoring up the region’s water infrastructure, said county Water Resources Program Manager Sierra Ryan.

“All of these agencies are working with an eye towards what the future will look like, and a lot has been done this year to plan for that,” she said. “And, lo and behold, we get hit with a perfect example of why we need to make these changes.”

At the top of the agenda for local water officials is how to deal with “weather whiplash,” or extended periods of drought followed by intense precipitation and flooding. The phenomenon, illustrated by the heavy rains that hit the county in January, presents an ongoing challenge for local water agencies, Ryan said.

For instance, Ryan said that when the Loch Lomond reservoir was built, it was expected to fill every year and provide water for the greater City of Santa Cruz area. But it has filled only three times in the past decade. She explained that now that the rain might come in larger quantities all at once, the reservoir’s capacity could be insufficient and allow a lot of water to run off. That means a significant amount of water that could be saved won’t be.

The “weather whiplash” phenomenon affects groundwater, too, which is the biggest source of fresh water for the county, Ryan said. With large rainfall events, the ground gets saturated, and water that normally percolates into the ground and flows to the groundwater basin ends up running off.

“That’s why we saw the flooding become such a big problem. That water could no longer get into the soil,” said Ryan. “So now, you have a situation where you have both less surface water availability and less groundwater availability.”

The report outlines several projects aimed at connecting water infrastructure across the county and bolstering existing supply, paid for with the help of grants.

Those include: $150 million to the Pajaro River levee project; $7.6 million to both the Mid-County Groundwater Agency and Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency for groundwater sustainability efforts; almost $10 million for a pipeline between the Scotts Valley Water District and the City of Santa Cruz Water Department; and almost $5 million to the City of Watsonville to increase its water storage capabilities.

City of Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard said that the idea of linking various water systems isn’t new, but is especially timely. A pipeline, like the proposed project to link the Scotts Valley Water District and the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, would allow one facility to help another one in an emergency situation. Currently, the county’s only connection is with the Soquel Creek Water District.

Menard points to the city policy initiative dubbed “Securing Our Water Future,” which floats several options for projects that could help conserve as much water as possible during wet years. One of the goals is to increase water storage capacity so there’s space for 500 million additional gallons by 2027.

“It’s a pretty steep hill to climb, but getting some additional supply in place while working on longer-term things is really designed to improve our situation,” said Menard.