Illustration by Anna Mcgrew.
Illustration by Anna McGrew.

January’s first big storm in Santa Cruz dropped more than 7 inches of rain, which made progress toward ending California’s historic drought, while simultaneously causing a water shortage in Santa Cruz.

Usually, 95 percent of the city’s water comes from local surface water, but it became untreatable due to sediment buildup during the extreme rainfall. This left the city to rely on reservoirs like Loch Lomond, one of Santa Cruz County’s major reservoirs. The Newell Creek Pipeline, the main pipe from the Loch Lomond reservoir, burst on Jan. 9 and left the city in a water emergency after losing approximately 1,500 gallons a minute.

Santa Cruz Water Department officials say they believe the pipe broke due to its location in a wooded area. The rainfall caused the soil to become so saturated the ground shifted, which cracked the pipe and caused the leak.

Drinking water remained clean throughout the crisis, but city officials warned supply was limited. The city had to import approximately 1.1 million gallons from Soquel Creek Water District and asked residents, including those of UC Santa Cruz, to cut down water usage by one-third.

“The smaller dining halls were closed over the weekend, but the big three [dining halls] went to paper. No plates, silverware or cups, but we still had pots and pans,” said Joseph Baker, shift manager for the Cowell Dining Hall kitchen. “Our dish machines all use recycled water, so it’s not running fresh water the whole time.”

In addition to impacting residents’ water use, the storm challenged the infrastructure of the area, causing closures to two lanes on Highway 17. Other streets and trails in Santa Cruz were similarly affected.

“There were some issues on the trails, some trees were blown down, which is a safety hazard,” said Robert Naylor, a College Nine student and cyclist. “A lot of the trails going off the roads are closed to cyclists.”

Vital repairs were done overnight on Jan. 12 to the Newell Creek Pipeline and the system is stable and in the process of recovering, meaning water supply has increased. On Jan. 17, Water Department spokesperson Eileen Cross confirmed the fixes on the pipeline have held. Regular standards for water use in Santa Cruz can resume, city officials said.

Addressing the threat of future storms, the issue will be if the water department can prepare for future problems with water mains relied on during storms, Cross said. “We do frequent inspections of the main, but unfortunately much of it is buried underground in fairly inaccessible locations. So sometimes leaks aren’t apparent until they affect the system enough to show up during our 24/7 monitoring, which was the case with last week’s leak.”

The water shortage crisis may be behind Santa Cruz, but climate change leaves a threat of more storms to come, which will challenge the city’s infrastructure if it is unprepared.

The storm also brings questions for the role of climate change. “An emergency like this hasn’t hit Santa Cruz in decades,” said director of the Center for Integrated Water Research and UCSC professor, Brent Haddad. ”But the potential for increasingly powerful storms due to climate change means it could happen more often in the future. We may have to increase our general level of preparation for water emergencies even though that comes with a cost.”

While the storm caused issues for the city and its residents, many hope the particularly wet season, especially in the Sierra Nevada mountains, will go a long way in helping much of California get out of the drought.

“The series of storms we are having are helping restore groundwater levels,” Haddad said. “But many years of wet weather and better management of groundwater use are needed to really improve our groundwater situation.”

Around 34 percent of California is no longer in a drought, when this time last year 97 percent of the state had been, according to U.S. Drought Monitor. The Governor’s State of Emergency remains in effect, as much of Southern California still suffers from extreme drought.

The city’s water shortage emergency has ended, but California’s water woes remain.