Summer is here, and water resource managers around the state are gearing up for another dry season. In Santa Cruz County, unique geology and three distinct basins make protecting the water supply a complicated and fractured process involving multiple water agencies. From the Pajaro Valley to the Santa Cruz Mountains, here’s what they’re doing.
The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency received a $7.6 million grant from the California Department of Water Resources through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Program in May.
“We came home with a check that was about three-feet-by-five-feet wide,” says PV Water Management Agency general manager Brian Lockwood, with a chuckle.
The funds will support the College Lake Integrated Resources Management Project, which will increase College Lake’s capacity and make it an alternative to groundwater for agricultural irrigation, which is the largest drain on South County’s water resources.
The agency split the project into two parts.
“There’s the facilities in and around College Lake. That includes a weir structure and fish passage, water treatment and a pumping station to move water down the coast. That’s been designed for some time,” says Lockwood. “The second part of the project is a 6-mile pipeline, and that project is at the 90% design level.”
The agency is currently acquiring property rights to flood land around College Lake.
“And we’re doing that either by purchasing land outright or purchasing flood easements on private property,” Lockwood continues.
The agency is also developing appraisals for the pipeline properties.
“We’ll be sending out offer letters for those in July,” says Lockwood.
PVWMA plans to have the project operating by 2025.
After receiving the $7.6 million, the board pushed back a planned rate increase for customers from July 1 to Dec. 1.
“Changing rates in the middle of the summer is more problematic for the agricultural community than changing rates in December because they’re in the middle of their season,” says Lockwood. “It’s also better overall to have the rate change occur when usage is lower, and December is a good time for that.”
PVWMA also has several other water projects lined up. The next one will divert water from Struve Slough to a treatment plant near Harkins Slough.
“What we’re looking to do is push our diversion at the slough system further away from the influence of saltwater and rising seas and be able to divert water to the San Andreas terrace,” says Lockwood.
The agency hopes to begin working on that project by October.
In April, the board also decided to increase rebates for conservation programs.
“We have things that work for the residents like gray water rebates and rainwater harvesting rebates that were all increased,” says Lockwood. “And we have ongoing rebates for agricultural customers as well.”
Soquel Creek Water District is working around seawater intrusion, as well. The groundwater basin, categorized as “critically overdraft” by the state, is threatened by salt water that seeps into the space where fresh water used to be.
To prevent further encroachment, the district designed the Pure Water Soquel Project. This project will treat recycled water to drinking standards before injecting it back into the basin at sites chosen by hydrologists.
The recycled water will flow from the treatment plant on the Westside of Santa Cruz to injection wells near New Brighton State Beach.
“We have eight miles of pipeline currently going into the ground, and we’re just over four miles done,” says Becca Rubin, the public outreach coordinator for the district. “So it’s a huge milestone that we just hit.”
“You’ve probably seen us going through town,” she adds. “We appreciate the patience of everybody in the community while we tear open the streets and put it back together.”
Ron Duncan, the district general manager, echoes Rubin’s thanks.
“It’s a short-term pain for long-term gain kind of thing,” he says. “We continue to navigate and adapt as appropriate to create a new water supply to help make the community resilient. If not, we’ll lose what we have due to seawater intrusion.”
SCWD’s constant project updates and outreach within the community earned them recent recognition from the California Special Districts Association.
“We’re lucky enough to get the transparency award for special districts again,” says Rubin. “We were the first in the area in 2015 to receive this award.”
The City of Santa Cruz shares the mid-county groundwater basin with Soquel and works closely with SCWD, but almost all of the city’s water comes from surface sources such as the San Lorenzo River.
Despite another dry year, the city was exempted from the new state-wide emergency water use restrictions.
“We met three criteria that they included in the emergency regulations,” says Heidi Luckenbach, the deputy director of engineering for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department.
One requirement was indoor water usage of 55 gallons per person per day or less. Santa Cruz comes in under 50.
“Not being connected to the state water system was the second component,” says Luckenbach.
For the final criterion, the city had to demonstrate it had enough water through September of 2023.
“It’s really just reinforcing the fact that customers in Santa Cruz have done an amazing job at backing off on water use,” says Luckenbach. “But the climate is changing, and we cannot predict it, so we’re carrying forward with our supply planning.”
Part of that supply planning includes an aquifer storage and recovery project, which injects treated excess storm runoff into the groundwater basin during the winter.
The city tested the injection process at two wells over the winter, and this month, the water department started extracting water.
“Our planning has shown that we can take that water out at specific rates, so we’re testing that theory now,” says Luckenbach. “But there’s still a lot of fine-tuning to be done both in terms of the volume, and also the water quality—taking the water out of the ground, treating it and putting it into our distribution system.”
The city expects to extract until sometime in August. If all goes well, the project will expand from two wells to up to 10.
“So we have a lot of planning and construction left to do,” says Luckenbach.
Inflation and materials shortages have made that challenging.
“But on the flip side, there’s a lot of money being set aside by the federal government through the infrastructure act, and we’re starting to see that,” she adds.
The city will continue exploring other options as well.
Even though the project is going well and Loch Lomond sits between 85-88% full, “we’re still really vulnerable,” says Luckenbach.
“Our demand is super low, which means we have no gravy to cut. And the weather is really variable,” she says. “We still have to move forward. We’re not done yet.”
Further north, Scotts Valley Water District is also exploring aquifer storage and recovery as an option for improving the Santa Margarita Groundwater Basin. Scotts Valley shares the basin with the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, and an emergency intertie connects the two.
Normally, SLVWD relies more on surface water, but the CZU fire made pumping necessary. So SLVWD and SVWD have both been relying on the basin.
The district declared a stage-two water shortage in May, or as some officials call it, a stage-two “water supply condition.” The word “shortage,” they say, can be misleading and make people think they’re running out.
“There is plenty of water still in the basin,” assures Piret Harmon, the SVWD general manager.
The concern is for the long term.
“It all comes from this space and underneath us. The only recharge for the basin is rainfall, and it’s the third dry, severely below-average rainfall year for us,” says Harmon. “We don’t know how long it’s going to go on. It might be the last dry year. It might be that we have many more coming.”
The district has a few options for addressing that uncertainty. Besides aquifer storage and recovery, SVWD is considering conjunctive use and indirect potable reuse. Conjunctive use involves sharing surface water with neighbors like SLVWD when there is an excess, which gives the groundwater basin a chance to recharge. Indirect potable reuse, similar to the Pure Water Soquel project, injects treated recycled water back into the ground.
“I think that is going to be the project that will ensure the resiliency of this basin,” says Piret.
She compares it to shortening the natural water cycle.
“Instead of letting it go to the ocean and then raining down, let’s catch it, let’s treat it, let’s put it back. And then we are much less dependent on the climate impacts,” she says.
In addition to large infrastructure projects, the district encourages users to consider their usage. Smart meters make that easier.
“These days, you can go and see [water use] in 15-minute increments,” says Harmon “And our customers have been surprised by it.”
SVWD wants to cut back usage by 10% and is creating incentives for residents to meet that mark. For instance, the district has a monthly raffle for customers who achieve a 15% demand reduction. Winners can use a $100 prize to lower their bill or at a local business. Customers who achieve a 15% reduction four months in a row can win $500.
The district also incentivizes turf replacement. Participants get $2 per square foot for replacing irrigated lawns with water-efficient landscapes.
To address questions, the district sets up a pop-up station every Saturday by the Skypark from 9am to 1pm.
“Eight to five office hours Monday through Friday—that’s when people work. So, if we tell them, ‘Come here and talk to us, we can help you,’ we’re not very accessible,” says Harmon.
Public opinion is still often the biggest challenge for the projects, says Harmon.
“I still see on social media, unfortunately, a lot of mistrust and attacks,” she says, adding that she sometimes hears accusations that Scotts Valley is taking other districts’ water to build new developments. Harmon shakes her head.
“Why would we take somebody’s water and use it up, and then nobody has water?” she asks. “We want this basin to be resilient for decades to come. We need that for our own customers. We need that for our neighbors.”