Illustration by Leigh Douglas

A winter with less rain means a summer with less water.

On April 2, the Santa Cruz Water Commission recommended to Santa Cruz City Council that it enact a 5 percent city-wide water restriction to conserve limited supplies from May through September, the hottest portion of the year. The city council is set to make a decision on April 26.

Since Santa Cruz County is isolated from neighboring water networks and is hydrologically self-sufficient, the county draws water primarily from the San Lorenzo River, North Coast springs and Loch Lomond Reservoir, as well as smaller creeks and groundwater basins.

With far below average rainfall this winter in what are normally the wettest months of the year — December, January and February — a January report from the city’s Water Supply Outlook labeled 2012 “critically dry.” However, unusually high precipitation in March changed the latest report’s rating to “dry.”

“There should be awareness of the situation. This is us running up a flag to let people know that things are a little bit below normal,” said Toby Goddard, manager of the city’s Water Conservation Department. “[The restriction] will have a very slight impact because most people already do this, but it’s a reminder to the community that we are prone to shortages in below-normal water years.”

The Water Commission is only recommending minimal Stage 1 restrictions this summer, comparably lower than 2009’s 15 percent cutback. If the trend continues, however, there could be more severe water shortages in 2013.

“[The water reduction] is not a large cutback. It will create inconvenience, but not hurt the economy or threaten public health,” said UC Santa Cruz professor Brent Haddad, who specializes in urban water policy and heads the Center for Integrated Water Research on campus.

“People in charge of landscapes will have to do some things differently, such as reduce the amount of watering they do or switch to nighttime watering so there is less evaporation,” he said. “Businesses and homes should be able to find voluntary reductions that are inconvenient but feasible.”

UCSC is the largest water consumer in Santa Cruz, but UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said the latest restriction will not significantly impact campus operations, unlike the 15 percent water restriction three years ago.

After the 2009 reductions, the university took action to curb water usage, ultimately decreasing consumption by 32 percent.

“UCSC has surprised everyone by going well beyond what was thought possible for voluntary water conservation,” Haddad said. “The students have been a driving force and the administration has put money and staff time behind water conservation. UCSC should be able to absorb the restriction.”

Water capacity has come up repeatedly in the discussions between the university and city about future development. But Haddad said the water shortage was “typical” and “should have no impact on long-term development” at UCSC.

“UCSC already anticipates wet years and dry years, so they are prepared for a cutback like this,” he said.

Through continuing conservation efforts, UCSC will be able to grow without outstripping Santa Cruz’s water supply, Burns said.

Although Santa Cruz should be able to bear this dry winter, the city is not well equipped to deal with multiple drought years.

“This is a very modest situation…[but] our system is vulnerable when we get multiple years well below normal,” water conservation manager Goddard said.

If rainfall is limited one year, surface sources are not replenished to their normal levels and stored water in Loch Lomond must be used. If another dry winter follows, there is not as much water in storage available.

“We try to put ourselves in a position that in case it drags on for a year, we’re in better shape than if we did nothing,” Goddard said. “We have to be prepared in case there is another dry or critically dry year. That’s the real reason we are taking the action this year — so we can be in a better position next year.”