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The Cassandra Crossing

[whitespace] Growing Pains

By Rachel Ann Goodman

'IN CALIFORNIA," Mark Twain once wrote, "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over."

For two decades in Santa Cruz County, water has been the trump card played skillfully by anti-growth forces. Scotts Valley's Glenwood project met its demise in part because of concern about limited water supplies. If lack of water keeps development away, reason some, then new water projects invite growth.

Mark Demming, principal planner for the county, says the water/growth equation is like a mobius strip.

"It's a vicious cycle. You provide the water, then more development comes and puts more pressure on water supplies," Demming explains. "One of the things we look at when we look at any long-term planning project is the availability of services. If water is a constraint, then that will change the intensity of the project, or stop it."

Gary Griggs, a geology professor and the head of UCSC's Long Marine Lab, says locals have gotten good at stopping projects--both good and bad.

"We need a mechanism to get over paralysis by analysis," Griggs says. "We're at that place now. When there's a drought, there may be a different view."

But moving public opinion is a slow process. "It's like a glacier moving until there's only a drop coming out of the tap, but it's moving in that direction," says Bruce Onido, a county water commissioner and the watershed manager of the San Lorenzo Water District. Whether it's a golf course or a new dam, both sides tend to use water experts as ammunition. But how do project planners know which consultants to believe?

Jerry Weber teaches field geology at UCSC and runs his own consulting business. He says that, unfortunately, there are plenty of unethical consultants on both sides of the aisle.

"There are people who have political agendas and who will lie for their clients in either direction, developers and environmental groups alike. " says Weber.

Santa Cruz geologist Bob Curry, a retired UCSC professor of hydrology, is more blunt in his assessment.

"There are hydro-whores of every ilk and variety and they're just thicker than flies," he says. "I've tried to instill in my students that you just have to be objective, you have to be honest, and you have to qualify your statements when they have to be qualified."

On the other hand, Cassandras who give dire predictions have a hard time getting heard. Curry tells the story of the late Ken Muir, a mild-mannered U.S. Geological Survey employee from Scotts Valley who wrote the first warning report about Santa Cruz County's groundwater overdraft problems in 1979. He pointed out that overpumping in south county was causing saltwater intrusion. The business community worried the report would lead to a building moratorium in the county.

"He was lambasted," Curry says.

County supervisors blew their collective stack, Curry says. Muir was called on the carpet because the congressional delegation sent letters to the USGS that this man was out of line. "His bosses came down on him like a ton of bricks because they were under great political pressure from Washington, D.C. I remember a letter requesting that the report be retracted; and what ultimately happened is that the county hired an engineering consulting firm to counter the report, and they came up with a thing that said there's no evidence of any problem whatsoever, it's all hunky-dory."

Muir was demoted and soon after passed away. Since that time the USGS has stayed out of Santa Cruz water politics, Curry says.

The hydrology of groundwater can be highly speculative, given scientists' inability to see or definitively measure what lies underground. Much of the methodology relies on data gathered from well drillers and computer modeling. That may explain why geology consultants hired by opposing interests can come up with different conclusions. But a more compelling explanation is that in California, water is money, and with so much of it riding on real estate, finding water may be the modern version of striking gold.

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From the September 15-22, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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