Santa Cruz Sentinel

Santa Cruz council adopts water shortage contingenc­y plan

- By Ryan Stuart rstuart@santacruzs­entinel.com

SANTA CRUZ >> Santa Cruz has a new plan in the event the city needs to ration water over the summer, which is a real possibilit­y.

The Santa Cruz City Council voted to unanimousl­y adopt an update to the city’s water shortage contingenc­y plan in a 6-0 vote Tuesday. Councilwom­an Renee Golder did not attend the meeting.

The need for an updated water shortage contingenc­y plan was brought to the council’s attention two weeks ago. Santa Cruz Water Director Rosemary Menard presented the city’s preliminar­y water outlook.

Her initial report looked bleak. Following warm and dry summer and autumn months, the city was falling behind in its yearly precipitat­ion. The city had only about 12.79 inches of rain as of Feb. 7 which is about two-thirds of where it should have been, according to the report. If it weren’t for January’s atmospheri­c river, the city would have been in significan­tly worse shape.

“We have about one year of supply in Loch Lomond,” Menard said at Tuesday’s meeting. “If we have a really dry winter, we could get into trouble really fast. We can get out of trouble really fast too if we get a more normal precipitat­ion pattern.”

While there is no decision made yet, Santa Cruz could have a water shortage this summer and residents could be asked to ration water.

Santa Cruz also had a dry year last year but didn’t face water rationing orders. Menard decided not to implement water rationing because of the already existing issues of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. She believed asking residents to ration their water would compound the stress of a global pandemic and be worse for the community.

The water outlook prompted Menard to update the city’s contingenc­y plan. The current water shortage contingenc­y plan for the city was drafted in the early 2000s and is based on the water consumptio­n habits of that time.

“Because of the significan­t changes in the nature of water consumptio­n, I wanted to get this plan in front of you and in front of the community before the coming demand season in the off chance that we need to implement it,” Menard said.

The contingenc­y plan works in five stages. Each stage reduces water usage around the city by a total of 10% between nine categories of water user. Those categories are, single-family residentia­l, multiple residentia­l, business and industrial, UC Santa Cruz, municipal, irrigation, golf course irrigation, coast irrigation and other.

The “other” category takes up less than a tenth of a percent of the city’s total water usage and is barely affected by reductions. Conversely, singlefami­ly homes are significan­tly the largest users of water in the city, using 38% of the city’s water.

The biggest rollback in water usage in the contingenc­y plan will be in irrigation systems. The decision was made as part of an effort to protect the water that is used for health and safety as the top priority. That is water used for interior domestic and sanitary purposes. Irrigation water was cited as the lowest priority.

“Irrigation is not going on in the way that it was going on 20 years ago in this community,” Menard said when talking about the 40% drop in singlefami­ly home use. “We all see that in the way our front yards look like and what people are doing to their front yards to improve water use efficiency.”

In Stage 1, irrigation systems will be reduced by 25%. It will reduce by an additional 25% with each subsequent stage and be reduced to zero by Stage 4. However, if the city reaches Stage 4 it could have bigger problems.

“I think that anything beyond a Stage 2 here is really a painful cut that we would have to absorb in the community,” Menard said. “The Water Commission asked me, ‘How could we really do these higher stages?’ The answer is, well in our case, we really can’t.”

Because of that limitation, the Water Commission had to come up with a mitigation strategy. Some of it will be the curtailmen­t of water usage. However, the main strategy will be to allocate water to certain groups. That way consumers have the freedom to use water how they see fit within their allocation, Menard said.

Allocation will see single-family homes average about an 11.33% reduction in available water with every new stage until Stage 5 in which that reduction will drop to only 7%. Multiple resident buildings will see about an 8% reduction through the stages, with the final stage reducing their allocation by 9%.

Businesses will see about 5% reduction until the fifth stage. Then they will lose a whopping 18% of their allocation. However, that allocation will vary depending on the time of year. The contingenc­y plan will offer more of the businesses water allocation during the peak time of year over the summer months and will curtail the allocation on the end of the year.

UC Santa Cruz will lose about 9.5% reduction until the final stage when it will see a 17% cut. The municipal sector will lose roughly 21% of its allocation throughout the stages, but only 2% in the final stage. Lastly, golf course will see water reductions of about 18% per stage.

However, while water usage could be restricted, residents could still end up paying more for their water. The concept is a drop cost recovery fee. It is a rate that is applied to water usage that helps keep water companies operationa­l during a time of shortage.

“It’s a very difficult thing for the community to use less, pay more,” Menard said. “But that’s kind of where we are with our water supply situation.”

That is why it is important to get this contingenc­y plan in place, Menard continued. That way water can be properly allocated in a time of varying need and in the event people need to pay more for their water, they can have a reliable supply of it.

While this is part of the discussion at the moment, it is only a contingenc­y plan and not a definite action, yet. Menard noted that demand for water in the last year has been down and a water shortage could possibly not happen. It all depends on the remainder of the wet season and how water usage continues in the coming months.

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