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05.07.08

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And Not A Drop to Drink: Watsonville's sloughs belie a serious saltwater intrusion problem that has launched the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency into crisis.

And Some Water, Please

After lawsuits and layoffs, it was good manners and a spirit of cooperation at last week's Pajaro Valley water agency meeting.

By Paul Wagner


It takes 20 tight left turns to reach the top level of the parking structure in Watsonville's brand new Civic Plaza--the level on which its Community Room is located. And with each turn through the hulking structure, it becomes more evident how much effort has gone into making Civic Plaza not only rock solid, but friendly. Cream-colored paint covers every wall and ceiling, casting a glow even in minimal light. Shiny steel cables stretch tight to prevent cars from nosing too close toward vertical edges. And every square inch of concrete floor is brushed in textured circles so that no one, no matter how wet the surface, need ever slip.

In fact it's all so industro-techno that there's a bit of a shock in pulling onto the top open-air level and seeing hundreds of fleshy, fragile human beings not only filling the community room, but pouring out the doors, straining to hear, many with slightly sagging postures and looks of concern on their brows.

But that was the scene on April 30 when the city of Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency co-sponsored a "Watsonville Water Summit: Solutions for the Pajaro Valley," the first public meeting in the new community room itself.

It was the community's latest try at staving off the water crisis that's been building for decades. It recently culminated in several rounds of lawsuits against the agency; loss of funding, staff and a crucial delivery pipeline; and a determined attempt to start from scratch and build a dispute-free future. The sense of both urgency and possibility were palpable. Perhaps that's why most of the Watsonville City Council, three Santa Cruz county supervisors, Monterey County Supervisor Lou Calcagno and Santa Cruz City Manager Richard Wilson, along with over 100 farmers, were present and highly attentive.

Ken Wiseman, executive director of the California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, moderated, seeing to it that each speaker got ample time. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, whose wife, Patti, hails from Watsonville (and graduated from Watsonville High in the same class as South County Supervisor Tony Campos), gave the keynote, "The state perspective on water issues." California's second-in-command warned that available funding is easily taken by competitors when localities fight internally--and then, "there won't be anything to follow it."

Dave Cavanaugh of the Santa Cruz Farm Bureau showed a film depicting local scenic beauty--a perfect introduction to Watsonville City Manager Carlos Palacios' pictorials showing what the city is doing and giving assurances to farmers that the city's and their interests are not at odds.

And Andrew Fisher, a UCSC professor of hydrogeology who's volunteered past services to the PVWMA on several committees, presented a best-of-past-ideas review of every practical solution studied locally over the last couple of decades--including District 2 supervisor candidate Doug Deitch's controversial suggestion that marginal strawberry land be bought and taken out of production, pointing out that that's already occurred several times.

Tying the dozen or so ideas together, Fisher traced a possible single unified strategy: focus on capturing some of the 90 percent of rainwater runoff that now simply flows away into the ocean, and using it as efficiently as possible. "There's nothing original in my thoughts here," he claimed, but the crowd's murmured approvals and occasional bursts of applause said different.

It was up to agency chairman Dennis Osmer to move the discussion from head and heart down to gut reality, and he did so first by inducing belly laughs. "This is the cap of my career!" he exclaimed, reciting the "successes" he'd had since taking charge of the PVWMA: the agency's director leaving, lost lawsuits, lower funding, laid-off staff. "We'll be totally upside down by the year 2011, entirely out of business by 2012, and given that record of accomplishments, and the Legislature's great handling of the state budget, I feel fully qualified to run for the Legislature!"

The crowd clapped and roared, and Osmer took full advantage of that opening to deliver a plea: "It's time to bury the hatchet" that led to the division between coastal growers, inland growers and the city. That rift led to lawsuits and ultimately a possible county takeover of the valley's water system; on May 20, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will consider a "declaration of groundwater emergency."

"I ask you to join with the board" of the agency, "to support the board, in our work," he said, adding that the agency needed to hold off the counties, the state and the courts until its money problems are solved and a new plan can be put in place. "Right now, we have no basin management plan," said Osmer, referring to the master plan for water in the Pajaro Valley. "We have to start anew."

Osmer's good cheer and directness seemed to influence the public-suggestion session that soon followed. Aside from a couple of quick barbs tossed at the agency, most audience members seemed ready to jump right aboard the new-tone express.

How about using the Pajaro River itself for recharge? asked one attendee. What about restoring the original course of the river, including overflow areas? More rainwater catchment? More injection wells, where excess winter water is injected into tough-soiled areas and then sucked back out in summer? How about distributing temporary colder-weather bodies of water, like College Lake, to farmers each spring, instead of just pumping it out to the ocean? What about water hookup moratoria? Is the city enforcing its build-new/must-retrofit-other-units program? The questions and suggestions were many, and staff wrote each one down. As the evening ended, attendees applauded the speakers and presenters generously.

"I think it was very informative," Supervisor Tony Campos said afterward. "A subtle but significant change," observed the PVWMA's technical division manager Mary Bannister. "I think we've got a shot, at this point, to come up with some solutions," said Dennis Osmer.

It's not, however, going to be easy. In fact, we could not help noticing that while it took 20 turns to get up to the meeting room, it took 22 to get back to Main Street and start heading toward home.


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