Illustration by Heather Rose.
Illustration by Heather Rose.

With California’s drought entering its fourth year and 2014 recorded as the state’s driest year in the last 106 years, cities throughout California are trying to conserve the depleted resource. However, Santa Cruz’s preparation and resident participation has given it an advantage in water conservation.

“We’ve had restrictions of some kind or another in five of the past seven years, so some restrictions are starting to feel like normal,” said Eileen Cross, the Santa Cruz Water Department’s communication manager. “We manage our supply very conservatively [during] normal or dry years.”

Cross said Santa Cruz was likely more prepared for a drought than other communities in California, noting the city’s Water Shortage Contingency Plan. The 2009 report, which has five stages, details the changing regional conditions and ways to address any future water shortages.

Despite the contingency plans in place, Cross said if the people in Santa Cruz were apathetic, the city would be in more trouble than it is in now. Instead, Santa Cruz has one of the lowest per capita water use rates in the state.

“I would argue that Santa Cruz residents are likely one of the most engaged populations in their water supply challenges in the state,” Cross said. “This is evidenced both by their response to the call for rationing — our goal was 15 to 25 percent [and] we consistently hit 25 percent and almost hit 30 percent in September — as well as their participation in the process of determining our future water supply.”

The city’s Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC), a 14-member committee representing a spectrum of community interests ranging from the environment to business, has seen a surge of resident participation.

The WSAC was created in 2013 to learn about water sources in the city and develop a list of recommendations for City Council to solve the supply and demand gap of water. To date, the committee has received over 100 ideas from the community regarding strategies about how to secure the future water supply.

Mike Rotkin, WSAC and Sustainable Water Coalition member and former five-time mayor, said although the committee was founded over a year ago, it took time to familiarize itself with the city’s complicated water system and learn about the barriers that exist in the way of water supply and conservation.

“We spent a year getting ourselves up to speed so all 14 members really understand our water system and what our real options might be,” Rotkin said. “We hope to be done by next September with the final proposal to City Council for the best solution.”

While most cities in California import their water from Sierra Nevada or depend on snowpack for their supply, Santa Cruz is different, relying on rainfall and some groundwater.

“That means that Santa Cruz is actually in relatively good shape compared to much of California,” said Erica Stanojevic, the Sierra Club representative for the WSAC. “At least we have [had] some rain whereas snowpack is so small this year.”

Consequently, while Gov. Jerry Brown addressed California on April 1 calling for the first mandatory water cuts in California’s history — a 25 percent reduction in urban water use — Rotkin said Santa Cruz isn’t a part of the state water system.

“We don’t get any state water, so when Jerry Brown stands on a piece of fairground and says there’s no snowpack, that has nothing to do with our water needs,” Rotkin said.

Regardless of the city’s relatively stable water supply, the WSAC, the city and its residents continue to plan to conserve more water and find new water sources. The WSAC should have its final proposals for City Council by October.

Rotkin said the committee has over 70 formal proposals from the community, which include ideas like using abandoned lime quarries for additional water storage and placing dehumidifiers along the ridge of the mountains to capture water out of the air. But each proposal has its own set of issues.

“None of [the proposals] are simple solutions. Where we are at now is looking at these alternatives and having technical experts look at them,” Rotkin said. “What would they cost? What environmental consequences do they have? How much water can they actually produce and under what kind of rainfall conditions?”

In the final portfolio given to City Council, Rotkin estimates there will be 12 to 13 projects after the committee reaches an agreement. The committee will not pass proposals unless it receives a 10-4 majority.

“We all know our solutions are going to include increased conservation, probably a willingness of what’s called some ‘curtailment of use in serious droughts,’ so there would be some cutback,” Rotkin said. “We’re not going to provide enough water so that everybody could have as much [water] as they want, whenever they want it forever.”