Mandatory 40 percent water rationing. Hotel closures. Water lines shut off when consumption exceeds the limit. Businesses reliant on tourism struggling to make it through the summer months — their most lucrative time.

The City of Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD) foresees this future if no alternative water source is integrated to forestall what it characterizes as “catasrophic” potential impacts of compounded drought years.

“The consequences of doing nothing are dire. I don’t think people understand how bad it could be,” said SCWD water director Bill Kocher.

The SCWD has spent two decades examining how to mitigate the impact of compounded drought years. After determining roughly 30 various projects to be insufficient or nonviable, SCWD concluded that bringing a desalination plant to Santa Cruz to cover the gap during drought years was the only way to prevent dramatic consequences of critical droughts.

“Desalination is the best alternative,” said public outreach coordinator Melanie Schumacher. “We have been looking at alternatives, but they have to meet the water needs of the community.”

Four-minute showers. City government invests in providing lawn replacement for Santa Cruz homes and equipping them with rain catchment devices. Instruments to support greywater reclamation — the process of recycling wastewater generated from laundry, dishwashing and bathing for landscaping and irrigation usage — become a popular feature in Santa Cruz homes.

Proponents of desalination alternatives envision this future for Santa Cruz — a future where no new water source is needed, due to a capitalization on further conservation measures.

“Money is just a tool, and we could use this tool to conserve and live within our means rather than bringing in the desalination plant,” said Ellen Murtha, co-chair of the Santa Cruz branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which is pro-conservation.

Numerous individuals in the Santa Cruz community are mobilizing against the potential introduction of the plant, saying that such a drastic step to ensure water provision is unnecessary, because conservation and curtailment efforts could be expanded, and the potential unknown ramifications of bringing in such a facility.

“There are some major environmental impacts,” said Rick Longinotti, cofounder of Desalination Alternatives. “It uses a lot of energy … it is a guess as to the impact on the ocean, it is just not clear how much of an impact it will have.”

This has been the bone of contention between the two fronts, as proponents argue that desalination is the only alternative and it is environmentally sound, and opponents argue that conservation efforts have not been capitalized on and the plant would bring negative environmental implications.

This contentious engagement was typified at last week’s debate forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters at the First Congregational Church on April 14, where the opponents and proponents of the desalination plant were able to engage in direct dialogue in front of the people of Santa Cruz for the first time.

The debate forum included two individuals each from the Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District and Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, representing the opponent and proponent sides to the issue, respectively.

Longinotti, co-founder of Desal Alternatives, and James Bentley, retired city water production manager, represented the opposing side. Mike Rotkin, former mayor and city council member, and Toby Goddard, SCWD water conservation manager, represented the proponents of desalination. More than 100 members of the community attended last Thursday’s meeting to express their investment in the future of Santa Cruz’s water supply.

“It is important for the community to understand the need for desalination,” Schumacher said. “It creates a level of transparency. I think that the agencies are being responsible in the way that they are pursuing the desalination plant and I hope that we are presenting that to the public — that this is not a silver bullet solution [and] we are continuing to evaluate and address concerns about the short and long term water supply.”


Illustration by Louise Leong.

The Logistics of Water Storage

SCWD serves a population of 98,000 people. The city’s source of water consists mainly of the San Lorenzo River, various North Coast diversions, a few wells and Loch Lomond Reservoir. Currently, Santa Cruz’s water supply consists of 95 percent surface water and only 5 percent groundwater, making Santa Cruz particularly susceptible to periods of drought.

Due to low annual runoff, during periods of drought Loch Lomond Lake Reservoir becomes Santa Cruz’s only source of fresh drinking water, which poses a problem — it isn’t enough.

“We can’t bring water from anywhere else,” Kocher said. “When we run out, we run out.”

The city has been grappling with this looming threat for two decades. The Santa Cruz City Council began evaluating alternative new water source options specifically for provision in periods of drought back in 1997.

In order to ensure that Santa Cruz will have the infrastructure to withstand compounded years of drought, SCWD has undertaken the more than two decade-long project of identifying possible new sources of water. After determining new source after new source nonviable, desalination eventually became the only remaining possible new source for water left on the district’s drawing board.

“I’m convinced that we need some kind of additional supply, and as one project after another fell by the wayside, this is what we have left,” said Terry McKinney, SCWD superintendent of water production.

The desalination process involves converting seawater to potable water, or drinking water. Sodium is removed through a process of reverse osmosis, whereby the water is separated into two parts: the freshwater and the high-sodium concentrate, brine.

WILPF co-chair Murtha said that this two-decade-long investment by the city may be more of a motivation for the SCWD pushing forward with the desalination plant than the plant’s necessity.

“A lot of it is this investment they have — it is very hard to slow that down,” Murtha said. “There must be something very exciting about making a plant.”

In 2005, the city of Santa Cruz Integrated Water Plan (IWP) was developed and utilized. The IWP took into account background evaluations on water demand, conservation, curtailment and alternative water supplies, assessed from 1997 up to the plan’s inception. The plan included a background on the status of water demand, consumption and provision, and looked toward new sources of water supply. The IWP recorded the two decade-long process of examining the viability of various potential resources.

“The IWP first of all looked at conservation, then looked at how much more could be curtailed, then came up with supply plans that could make up the difference,” Kocher said.

Before the 1990s, SCWD knew surface water was always going to be the district’s primary source of water. In 1989, Luhdorff & Scalmanini, an environmental consulting firm employed by SCWD, concluded that groundwater sources were scant at best. The firm investigated potential groundwater sources, including wells at both Harvey West Park and Thurber Lane, and assessed that they could yield only 550 acre-feet of water annually, an inadequate amount considering SCWD annual water production hovers around four billion gallons a year.

In the early 1990s, the Brackish Groundwater Wells Project was considered the most viable groundwater option, but residents in the site area were concerned that the pumping could eventually negatively impact their wells. As a result, the city abandoned the project.

Waterman Gap Reservoir, Kings Creek Reservoir, Yellow Bank Creek Reservoir and Loch Lomond enlargement were four surface storage projects on the table, but the city determined these alternatives were not viable due to the fact that an immediate source of water is needed and such projects would be too lengthy an undertaking.

By 1997, only two projects remained on the drawing board: Reclamation/Coast Groundwater Exchange and Desalination.

Reclamation/Coast Groundwater Exchange would have been a two-part construction undertaking. One part of the project would have been a four-to-five million gallon per day wastewater treatment plant, located either on the existing wastewater treatment plant site or another location. Treated water would be delivered to area farmers for irrigation, and the city would have access to farmers’ current groundwater supplies. The second part of the project would therefore involve the wells and associated facilities necessary to extract this groundwater.

This alternative also faced obstacles. In a 2009 letter to SCWD water director Kocher that was cited in the IWP, Jonathan Steinberg of Route 1 Farms said using reclaimed water and turning over his well were not an option.

“Our customers expect the very best, very purest produce — I cannot in good faith give them produce grown in wastewater,” Steinberg wrote. “I also have concerns regarding giving up the autonomy of my water supply … I am in no way shape or form, interested in reclaimed wastewater being used in my farming operation nor am I interested in signing over my well to the city.”

Larry Jacobs, CEO of Jacobs Farm, echoed similar sentiments in a 2002 letter to Kocher, also cited in the IWP. Jacobs said he supports using reclaimed water, just not its use in growing food.

“We are in favor of recycling reclaimed water on golf courses, car washing, commercial landscaping, and home landscaping,” Jacobs said, “but not on plants grown for food, and especially [not] on plants that are eaten uncooked.”


Illustration by Louise Leong.

What Could Be

According to the evaluations of water demand in Santa Cruz listed in the IWP, SCWD said that Santa Cruz’s current demand for water “exceeds the estimated available yield from its existing sources during drought conditions, even with mandatory curtailment requirements.”

The city conducted the Water Curtailment Study (WCS) in 2001, which is cited in the IWP, to better understand how customers would reach usage restrictions and how such actions would impact agriculture, business and resident customers.

The WCS analyzed six levels of water shortage severity, ranging from 10 to 60 percent shortages, and assessed the impacts of necessary curtailment on the three prioritized types of usage, health and safety, business and irrigation.

According to the results of the study, households issued a 40 percent system shortage would have “serious” implications “with important lifestyle changes.” Catastrophic shortages, however, where households would be issued 50 to 60 percent system shortages, would result in residents’ concern for daily water usage reaching “an unparalleled level.” The IWP stated that this level of shortage “would also impose major and burdensome lifestyle changes, some of which could well affect basic health and safety.”

A 50 percent systemwide shortage would result in 30 percent annual revenue shortages, which would be “catastrophic,” with hotel and motel closures. In the business sector during an extreme drought where residents would have to cut water usage by 42 percent, businesses would have to cut usage by 50 percent and irrigation would be eliminated.

“The economy in Santa Cruz that depends on water would shut down, and the tourist industry would all be out of business,” said SCWD water director Kocher.

Chirag Mehda, general manager of the Comfort Inn on Plymouth Street, corroborated the conclusions in the IWP, saying that for his inn, 40 percent rationing would impede business.

“It definitely would affect the business, because customers need to shower and use the pool and spa. They might not stay,” Mehda said. “I would fear that I would go out of business. The economy is already not good, [so] if that happened it would make it worse.”



In both operating and constructing the desalination plant, the SCWD has proposed and moved forward with partnering with Soquel Creek Water District (SqCWD). The city will be partnering with Soquel to lessen the fiscal burden of undertaking such a project, and to maximize each entity’s attributes.

“It would be good to have a money partner. We have tried to partner with Soquel to have a way to exchange with each other,” said Terry Tompkins, deputy director/operations manager of Graham Hill Road Treatment Plant. “It would be good to have a partner that has ground water supply, and vice versa.”

According to the IWP figures drafted in June 2003, desalination funded by the city would be a $77 million undertaking. At that point, if responsibility of funding the plant falls on residents, it would be $7.32 per month. If SCWD partners with Soquel Creek, the project would be a $40 million undertaking and cost $3.84 per customer per month. However new estimates place the cost of the desalination plant over $100 million.

For opponents of desalination, these million dollar figures are cause for alarm.

“The potential cost is going to be a burden, not just for us, but for generations to come,” said WILPF co-chair Murtha. “This is a city that does not have a lot of money.”

The construction cost would be split between agencies. Santa Cruz Water Department would pay 59 percent of the construction cost, and Soquel Creek Water District would pay 41 percent. Operational costs would be split 50-50.

Where the funding for the desalination plant will come from is still to be determined. Both SCWD and Soquel Water District are pursuing grants, but the project will likely become a bond measure reliant on rate increases.

“This thing is for the public and will be owned by the public,” Kocher said. “We shouldn’t be doing stuff the public is concerned about if we don’t have good answers. This has to be paid for by the people — if the voters want to put it on the ballot and shoot it down, sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. I am advocating for continuing to research ­— it is my duty and job — but it is not my job to convince voters.”

There are four main concerns both agencies must mitigate with desalination — impingement on the intakes, proper disposal of the brine leftover, city population growth and the amount of energy desalination requires.

Kocher said that by managing the intake velocity to compliment the natural velocity of the surrounding waves and utilizing a small screen size, the threat of impingement is all but eliminated.

The treatment process — separating saline water into treated fresh water and a high saline concentrate (brine) though reverse osmosis — requires a significant amount of energy. Where current methods of water production require 2-4 kilowatt hours per thousand gallons of water, desalination requires 12-16 kilowatt hours per thousand gallons.

Even in years of drought, the plant would only be used 180 to 200 days out of the year. Kocher said the infrequency of use alleviates the issue of energy consumption.

The concentrate left over from the process will be sent back to the ocean after being mixed with the treated wastewater, effluent, from the water treatment plant. Currently, Santa Cruz’s effluent is sent back to the ocean. The treated wastewater sent back to the ocean is essentially freshwater, so mixing the effluent with the brine is closer to the natural salinity levels in the ocean.

“The freshwater and brine mixture would actually be an enhancement,” Kocher said. “Everything is a trade, but I think it can be mitigated better in the ocean than in our current usage. This one seems to have the best chance to meet our needs in an environmentally responsible way.”

For some in the Santa Cruz community, despite the SCWD’s statements that the environmental impacts can be successfully mitigated, the integration of a plant that would require triple the energy to produce the same quantity of water and would tamper with the marine sanctuary would be an affront to the values of the community.

“I think [the SCWD] is not giving us enough credit,” Murtha said. “We are a community that really cares about the environment. This desal plant would make us hypocrites. I mean, if I ride my bike to work, I am still contributing to the desal plant.”

Environmental concerns continue to be a sticking point with community members. At the debate forum last week, this sentiment was echoed by the opponents of desalination and audience members alike when cheers erupted after speakers brought up the potential environmental impacts of the desalination plant.

Opponents of desalination have also consistently argued the SCWD has not capitalized on conservation efforts, and this point was not omitted from the debate. The opponents said the city, rather than investing millions into the desalination plant, should allocate those funds to further conservation efforts, among them composting toilets.

Upon the proponents of desalination’s response that such conservation efforts would not come to fruition, audience members shouted simultaneously: “I’ll take one!”

Longinotti pointed out that until the SCWD exhausts all conservation efforts, their assertion that desalination is not “a silver bullet” solution but the only remaining alternative is contradictory.

“If you value desalination as a last resort, please have your spending priorities reflect that,” Longinotti said.

Mike Rotkin, former mayor and city council member, countered that to depend on conservation as a method of water supply insurance is “irresponsible planning.”

“Conservation [alone] cannot do it,” Rotkin said. “Emotionally I am opposed to desalination, but we have reached a point where we don’t have any other alternatives.”

Contributing to skepticism of conservation as a solution is the degree to which Santa Cruzans already conserve. City residents use 66 gallons of water per person per day — compared to the 150 gallons used per person per day statewide — the lowest per capita use in California.

Bentley and Longinotti, representatives in the April 14 debate of those opposed to desalination, commended the district for their efforts to engage with the public and their conservation efforts up to the present. Bentley asserted that despite dissent and skepticism mounting around the desalination plant in particular, he still believes “the city will take care of us.”

Opponents of desalination argued that the environmental implications of the desalination plant outweigh the difficulties that would come from relying on conservation efforts to solve a water shortage crisis.

“Nature has its limits, and we are going to have to live within them,” Longinotti said during the debate forum. “If it is a tradeoff between our needs of today and our grandchildren, then it is no contest.”