News, music, movies & restaurants from the editors of the Silicon Valley's #1 weekly newspaper.
Serving San Jose, Palo Alto, Los Gatos, Campbell, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Fremont & nearby cities.

News and Features
May 30-June 6, 2007

home | metro santa cruz index | features | santa cruz | feature story

Feeling Blue?

Photographs by Carlie Statsky
Feeling Blue? When wells are pumped by too many users, groundwater levels drop below sea level and salt water from the ocean leaks into the aquifer.

Tapped Out

All over the county, fears about the viability of our water supply are forcing officials to take a new look at an age-old problem--and consider some radical solutions

By Steve Hahn

In 1951, seawater began its slow but methodic march into the Pajaro Basin, the area encompassing Watsonville and its outlying farmland. By 1970 it had advanced yet further, showing up in some wells close to a mile inland. Today, water from the ocean can be found in wells two miles inland--and the intrusion is showing no signs of letting up.

And it's not just Pajaro Valley that's racing against time to solve its water problem. Officials in Santa Cruz and Soquel are also working to obtain freshwater supplies in the face of rising demand and threats to the stability of current supplies.

The severity of the problem has forced water officials to work up some radical solutions, including using UV radiation to make sewer water safe for plant-life and building a massive pipeline to reroute water from the Central Valley aqueduct. The question is: Will it be enough?

Would You Like Some Salt With Your Strawberries?

The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA) has by far the most severe problem on its hands. While Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek are looking warily into the future of their supplies, farmers and water officials under the PVWMA have been suffering from a contamination of their supplies for decades.

Michael Cahn, a researcher at Salinas' UC Cooperative Extension, works regularly with farmers and water agencies throughout the county on combating seawater intrusion caused by groundwater being overpumped and dropping below sea level. He says he has seen the crop damage from seawater intrusion firsthand.

"If the salt is at a very high concentration, you can have particular constituents in that salt that are toxic to the plant," he says. "When the salt concentration gets very high, there are certain ions, like chloride, for example, which is one of the constituents we see go up very fast with seawater intrusion. That will cause some toxicity in the leaves in strawberries and other crops that are sensitive to chloride."

The danger of this advance is quite severe for agriculture, the largest sector of the basin's economy. Dale Husk, president of Ocean Mist Farms, has already experienced problems with his crops.

"The first thing you have is reduced yields," he says. "The plants in many cases become stunted; they don't grow to their maximum potential. In some cases where it gets severe you get marginal leaf necrosis. You have a tightening of the soil so you get poor water penetration after the sodium levels build up, all of that leading to poor water penetration, poor lateral water movement, increases in salt leading to detriment of the roots and the vascular tissue of the plants, and eventually if it gets bad enough the plant itself will die."

Luckily, there are a number of options on the table that, when combined, will stop Pajaro Basin seawater intrusion in its path and even begin the process of pushing the invading hordes of chloride and sodium back into the sea.

The waste-water recycling plant is a major weapon in the seawater intrusion fight and should be among the first of the solutions to go online--it's scheduled to be operational by 2009. Watsonville's current waste-water treatment plant, which only treats the water to a secondary level, will have 4,000 acre-feet per year of water currently being discharged into the Monterey Bay rerouted to the new plant, which will send the water through a tertiary cleaning process, making it fit for use in irrigation, but not for direct human consumption.

The idea of using recycled sewer water on crops may not appeal to some of our finer senses, but Husk and a number of other farmers have been impressed by the quality of water from the Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project, a waste-water recycling plant that has served as a model for PVWMA officials.

"The [recycled] water is much better water for irrigation than the well water we had," says Husk.

Husk has noticed healthier plants granting him higher yields after switching from well to recycled water in the Salinas Valley. Cahn reports similar results for farmers across the project area, but notes that some farmers are receiving higher salt content from recycled water because it gets blended in with the salty well water depending on where the farm falls along the supply pipeline.

Despite these technicalities, the positive results in Castroville indicate that once the Watsonville plant is built, crops in the Pajaro Basin will experience the same beneficial effects.

Balancing out demand and supply for fresh water is the only way to ensure wells are given a chance of regeneration through rainfall and surface sources. But while the new sources of water, less contaminated by chloride or sodium, will benefit farmers in the short term, that balance is still a long way away. After the water recycling plant is complete, about 18,500 acre-feet per year of pumping will still need to be replaced near the coast to halt seawater intrusion.

To obtain this additional supply, PVWMA officials, including technical manager Mary Bannister, are relying on existing projects such as the Harkins Slough Project being supplemented by newer, incomplete projects such as the coastal distribution system. Both of these projects fit within the overall short-term plan of PVWMA, which is to take water captured inland and reroute it toward the coast.

"Our groundwater modeling has shown that for us to stop pumping in the coastal region gets us a lot more bang for our buck than if we were to reduce pumping basinwide," says Bannister. "You can imagine that stopping pumping way inland would have a very minor effect, or it would take a long time to be expressed at the coast in an increase in groundwater levels. Where we get the most effect in the basin is to stop pumping from the coastal wells, and that allows the groundwater in the coastal area to become more or less a barrier for that seawater that's moving in."

The final piece in Pajaro Valley's water supply puzzle may be an import pipeline designed to route water from the Central Valley Project, a series of aqueducts and pumps that directs water from the San Luis Reservoir to Hollister and Santa Clara. According to Bannister, a turnout for the Pajaro Valley was in the original design, but the money never materialized. Money is still tight, as the recycling plant and coastal distribution pipelines eat up PVWMA's construction budget, but last month's release of a regional water plan that mentioned the import pipeline as one of many projects that might benefit the Central Coast region as a whole provides a ray of hope that funding may come in from other counties or even the state.

"That's going to be a tough one; it's a really expensive project and we're trying to find a way to make that affordable to the growers in the valley. They're already struggling to make ends meet with the current projects," says Bannister. "Growers here probably pay some of the highest water costs in the state of California for their irrigation water. In turn, they're able to grow really high-value crops in this valley, but it's a really tough business for the growers."

The PVWMA charges an augmentation fee to anyone who uses wells within the service area. These fees are then turned around and used on the various projects designed to supply fresh water to the valley and prevent seawater intrusion. With water prices as high as $200 an acre-foot and last year's freeze damaging whole swaths of farmland, no one wants to further burden growers by raising the augmentation fee to pay for the pipeline.

In fact, some landowners within the PVWMA service district think the current fees are already too high, and were instituted illegally. This charge made its way into a lawsuit against PVWMA heard by the Sixth District Court of Appeals. Last week, the court ruled that a 2003 fee hike from $80 to $120 was imposed illegally because it lacked a vote by landowners, something required under California Proposition 218.

Despite this setback, Bannister believes that, with the possibility that more federal or state grants can be obtained, growers will eventually pull together to solve the overpumping threatening the basin's wells and protect the base of the area's economy.

"Having low salt content in the water is imperative for these guys to be able to grow the high-value crops they grow here," she says. "The economy of this valley is dependent on that; $500 million a year, I think, is the value of crops here."

But Not a Drop to Drink

All of Santa Cruz's water supply comes from surface sources, so there is no risk of seawater intrusion. However, this also means there is a much higher risk of Santa Cruz facing serious water shortages if three or more drought years are not followed by high rainfall. Unlike many cities throughout California, Santa Cruz is completely self-sufficient when it comes to water, so there's no hope of just picking up the phone and asking a neighboring county if we could borrow a bit of their water.

Santa Cruz water officials, bless their foresight, were responding to this potential crisis when they established the Loch Lomond Reservoir in the late 1950s. This year the reservoir has plenty of water following a three-year wet cycle, but if the next couple of years don't bring a pickup in rainfall, city residents could be in for some belt-tightening water rationing harking back to the mid-'70s, when 38 percent of water demand went unquenched.

Looking beyond any potential drought, there is the simple fact that the city and UCSC are both continuing with development, leading to what the Integrated Water Plan projects will be a 20 percent increase in demand over the next 50 years.

A 2005 Grand Jury Report projected that restrictions like this year's would likely be in place nine out of 10 summers after 2015 if new supply sources aren't found. Santa Cruz's response to this rising demand is to build a desalination plant. Yet officials are quick to note that even this will not supply 100 percent of the city's water needs in the next 30 years.

That's where Linette Almond, the city's deputy water director, comes in. She is managing the desalination pilot project, and while she admits the process is long and at time arduous, she's confident the full-size desalination plant, which would eliminate salt and other dangerous constituents from ocean water and make it fit for human consumption, will grant the city a stable water source during drought years in the near future.

"We are almost ready to submit final plans to the university to get the building permit, and then subsequent to that we'll be able to submit our final plans to the Coastal Commission and actually receive a permit from them," Almond explains. "By the end of May or so we hope to have all the permits in place and actually be turning ground."

Surprisingly, the desalination plant wasn't the first option for city officials. A number of ideas have been proposed over the past 20 years to augment current supply sources, including building a water recycling plant, another reservoir, or even finding hidden groundwater. For a number of reasons none of these panned out, and desalination, which was originally designated as the least desirable option, won out.

After desalination was selected, a debate emerged regarding the size of the final plant. Should the desalination plant only filter water that citizens would need in years with normal rainfall, or should it be designed to meet drought-year needs? The answer ultimately came down to whether water officials wanted to induce a sudden jump in development.

"What it finally boiled down to was trying to find an option that was responsive to growth, not out in front of it," says Almond. "A reservoir project, you have to build that full-size, you can't build it in increments. It would be too expensive to allow growth to ride on the back of desalination with 2 1/2 gallons a day."

The end decision was that the plant should be designed to provide, coupled with current supplies, 85 percent of Santa Cruz's water needs in a drought year with the remaining 15 percent falling into the hands of the conservation department.

With that question resolved, Almond began planning the pilot project. She needs to experiment with different membranes and pre-treatments for the water in the pilot plant before beginning the design of a full-size plant because these factors shift depending on location.

"The reason that you do it site-specific, and the reason you see pilot plants all over, is that every location has its own temperature, salinity and constituents in it," she says. "Temperature and salinity variations especially change that treatment plan."

When the full-size plant is up and running, the Soquel Creek Water District, facing its own seawater intrusion threats, will receive 1,000 acre-feet per year of water from the plant as part of a deal between the two districts made earlier this year. This will allow its wells, overpumped by 600 acre-feet per year, to stay comfortably above sea level.

While Soquel Creek Water officials are hoping residents will help them meet a 15 percent curtailment benchmark this year to slow the drop in groundwater levels, their wells are so far free of salt water. Laura Brown, general manager for the Soquel Creek Water District, guesses that, if residents are conscientious about their water use, they may be able to keep their wells salt-free until the desalination plant is built. But she isn't deluding herself on the scale of the threat.

"We do have two areas in particular in the district where we have seawater that has intruded inland: Seascape and La Selva Beach. It's not in production wells yet, but it's getting close, so we're reducing pumping in that area," she says." We have another situation where the freshwater/seawater threshold is right at the coast. Pleasure Point and Santa Cruz wells are nearby as well. [The seawater] could be drawn inland quite easily."

Pajaro River

Trickle Effect: The San Lorenzo and Pajaro (pictured) rivers are both running well below average flow rates this year.

Conservative Measures

For now, these solutions are years away, and the aftereffects of this winter's dry, cold weather has water agencies across the county attempting to reduce demand and secure current supplies in the short term until the recycling and desalination plants can be built.

To do this, all three water agencies stress conservation over increased supplies, repeatedly noting that it's easier and more cost-effective for residents and businesses to reduce their water usage than it is for city officials to find new sources.

While Santa Cruz Water Conservation manager Toby Goddard has been updating the city's plans for a drought, he has been thanking his lucky stars for living among such a cooperative populace. Due to a mix of factors, including the fact that 77 percent of water use is for residential purposes, the city is made up of an environmentally conscious populace and temperate weather patterns grace our coast, Santa Cruz has one of the lowest averages in daily water use in the nation.

While the average American uses 230 gallons of water every day, the average Santa Cruz resident uses only 76 gallons per day. Goddard expects that number to drop even further to 67 gallons per day during this summer's drought restrictions.

These are promising figures, but they don't result in a sustainable balance of supply and demand. Over the long term, Goddard hopes to drop this number even further as water-saving technology becomes more ubiquitous, but is quick to note that a desalination plant is necessary for the numbers to truly match up during a drought cycle.

"The focus of our water conservation plan is on reducing daily water needs regardless of what the weather is doing," he says. "As you can imagine it focuses on fixtures, appliances and things [so] that once you put them in you don't have to think about it anymore: toilets, dishwashers, things that reduce everyday usage."

In Case of Drought, Break Glass

These are all great ways to save water in the short term, but if a drought hits, it will not be enough. This unfortunate fact has led to the creation of Santa Cruz's Drought Management Plan, which would only come into effect in a declared water emergency, something that probably won't happen soon unless two more droughtlike years closely follow this one.

Under the plan, a number of factors would determine who gets their water use cut first. The lowest level of restriction cuts 15 percent of usage by targeting daytime irrigation, while the next level cuts 20 percent by further restricting irrigation and beginning to restrict the filling of pools and the watering of large plots of land. The final level of drought restrictions would see full-on water rationing for all customers and the elimination of outdoor watering by public agencies. This would only come into effect when the city needed to eliminate 40 percent or more of its demand.

Recently, the updated version of this plan came under fire from golf course owners who had been reclassified from the business category to the irrigation category, causing them to be among the first targets of restrictions. The city and course owners are now in talks on a compromise deal, but Goddard reminds us that anything beyond a 20 percent shortfall will require sacrifices from somewhere.

"The premise is that some uses are more important than others and those should get higher priority," says Goddard. "So what we did is, in working with the local water commission, we came up with a three-priority system in which human health and safety has first priority, second priority is business, and the third priority we all agreed on was irrigation outdoor water use."

While Goddard attempts to placate golf course owners and works with residents on saving water when they garden, wash and cook, experts in the Pajaro Valley are working with farmers to reduce water usage on their crops through the installation of drip irrigation and weather-sensitive sprinklers. Cahn has noticed that as water prices skyrocket and salt continues to creep into wells, growers have suddenly taken an invigorated interest in water conservation.

"As these water issues come into the spotlight, major growers are coming to me and asking how they can reduce water use," says Cahn, who advises the berry-producing Ryder farmers and Fresh Express lettuce growers on conservation methods. "What we find is that growers will tend to use less water as it gets more expensive. In the Pajaro area that has happened: it's something like 200 dollars an acre-foot. What they end up doing is using a weather-based scheduling. If it's a hot, windy day it irrigates longer, but if it's foggy and cloudy it may not irrigate."

With a mix of conservation measures and new supply sources in the works, it appears that the next 20 to 30 years should see a balance of supply and demand for water in Santa Cruz County, unhindered as we are by the projected drop in snow pack over the next few decades that is expected to leave Southern California thirsty. However, if any of these plans fall through, if the PVWMA can't access water from the Central Valley Project or if residents start getting lax on conservation measures, the precocious balance will be skewed. Like children on a teeter-totter, any significant rise in demand or fall in supply could leave someone hanging.

"I live in the Aptos area and I'm always surprised at how the general public doesn't understand what the implications are if we lose these aquifers," Cahn says of the Pajaro Valley groundwater wells. "Once they go salty, you don't recover them. Instead of having above-ground storage facilities we have aquifers to store our water. If we lose them we just lost our storage capacity and it will translate to millions and millions of dollars in new infrastructure that will have to be created."

Send a letter to the editor about this story.