Repairs underway to fix key pipeline between Loch Lomond reservoir and Santa Cruz treatment plant

An above-ground section of the Newell Creek Pipeline.
(Via City of Santa Cruz)

The Newell Creek pipeline connects the Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant to the Loch Lomond Reservoir, the main water storage facility for the Santa Cruz Water Department. If repairs are not complete by Friday, the city could ask customers to temporarily cut back on water usage.

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The City of Santa Cruz was forced to shut down the only link between its drinking water reservoir and its water treatment plant Tuesday because of storm damage, raising the possibility that the city might ask residents to temporarily cut back on their water usage.

The Newell Creek Pipeline, a major artery that connects Loch Lomond Reservoir to the Graham Hill Water Treatment Plant, had to be shut down on Tuesday due to a break. City of Santa Cruz spokesperson Eileen Cross said Wednesday that it was likely the result of an accumulation of damage since January’s storms, rather than just from this week’s atmospheric rivers. Since a lot of the pipeline runs through landslide-prone Henry Cowell State Park, she said, it is particularly vulnerable to storm damage.

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Cross said this pipeline is crucial to the city’s water supply, especially during stormy weather; nearly all of Santa Cruz’s water supply comes from local rivers. Many sources from which the city would normally draw water become too dirty to treat due to silt, trees and other debris, leaving few options for fresh water. Loch Lomond is the main water storage facility for the Santa Cruz Water Department, which serves 98,000 people in the area roughly bounded by 41st Avenue to the south and Western Drive to the north.

“Loch Lomond is then the primary source that we go to, so when that pipe is compromised, it completely cuts us off from our main water supply,” Cross said.

The same pipeline was damaged in 2017 during the El Niño storms, which prompted the city to tell customers to temporarily reduce their water usage by 30%. If the emergency repairs currently underway are not completed by Friday, Cross said, the city might have to resort to that measure once again.

There is enough water available for a short-term supply from an emergency connection with Soquel Creek Water District and from North Coast sources, like Liddell Creek, Majors Creek and Laguna Creek.

To protect the water system from future weather events, Cross said the city has a $38 million project slated for 2024 that involves moving the 8-mile pipeline from Henry Cowell to Graham Hill, and moving some of the pipe that is currently above ground under the surface for increased protection. The pipeline has been repeatedly damaged by landslides.

Cross said that the impacts of climate change, including “weather whiplash” from repeated cycles of drought and storm, has made the project as timely as ever: “It’s definitely given it a sense of urgency that it might not have had otherwise.”

As this is the second time in six years that the pipe has been damaged, Cross said that provides a strong argument for increasing the city’s water supply — an idea city officials continue to advocate for.

“This underscores the need to diversify and augment our current supply,” she said. “It’s not just about drought, but it’s also about these kinds of situations and climate change is just going to exacerbate these problems.”