Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county
Straight talk needed about North County water supply
by Julie Engell
Most people are unaware of the pending water crisis steadily flowing toward North Monterey County. Although the prohibition on further subdivision (and water use) in the unincorporated lands surrounding the City of Salinas and inland North County contained in the latest version of the General Plan (GPU5) is a step in the right direction, it will not be enough.
The sobering reality facing North County residents is that regionally, water demand outstrips supply. Unless county leaders make some hard decisions regarding water use, some residents will be left high and dry. Will our elected leaders have the courage?
How water moves
In addition, the various underground aquifers are connected, enabling water to run from one to the other. Not only does water flow seaward in our creeks and rivers, it also flows toward the sea underground through the aquifers.
Indeed, this underground flow is how most of the North County aquifers get recharged since overlying impermeable clay prevents the penetration of rain in many places. Much of the Salinas River and Pajaro River watershed aquifers depend on recharge from upstream via underground aquifer flows.
The situation is further complicated by the alterations on the land surface by agricultural and urban development projects which drain water and rush it to the sea as quickly as possible without letting it seep into the ground and recharge the aquifers. Historically the Salinas River was re-routed and straightened, reaches of the Pajaro River channelized, the Moss Landing harbor was opened to the ocean, lakes in the Salinas Valley were drained to make way for cropland, and storm drains were built in cities to speed away the water. So now, instead of letting water meander through the valleys and percolate into the upper aquifers, we have built a system in which the land now sheds its water and rushes it into the ocean.
While we were busy draining the land, demand for water was increasing. Increased pumping of freshwater decreased pressure in the aquifers and seawater began to intrude. As early as the 1940s in the Salinas Valley and the 1950s in the Pajaro Valley, seawater intrusion was identified as a threat.
Seawater intrusion has reached the outskirts of Salinas, and in the Pajaro Valley, seawater is advancing on the City of Watsonville and the town of Pajaro. Although the effect is on coastal residents, seawater intrusion is caused by both coastal and inland pumping.
1. Most North County water users depend on individual or shared wells instead of regional water systems.
2. Most North County households are on septic systems instead of sewer hookups, resulting in significant nitrate contamination of groundwater.
3. Several different water agencies and water purveyors operating within North County make implementing an area-wide plan nearly impossible.
Lack of water infrastructure (pipes, pumps, and high-production wells) makes it impossible to minimize the risk of well failure or share the costs of providing potable water. Within each river basin (Pajaro and Salinas) all water users are drawing their water from the same interconnected aquifers, making all water users responsible for overpumping and for seawater intrusion. But geologic complexities underground leave North County water users more vulnerable to that overpumping. Without the pipes and pumps to move water where it’s needed, individual and shared wells in North County will continue to fail.
When the water flows underground, it is hard to see the connections, especially if you’re not having water problems yet. Voters may not understand the part they play in the problem and may not be willing to tax themselves for what they consider someone else’s problem.
Supplemental water for the Salinas Valley
But demand for water continued to grow. More agricultural land was brought into production, and urban demand accelerated.
A recycling water project built in the 1990s by the Monterey County Water Resources Agency and the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency delivered water to farmers near Castroville in an attempt to minimize seawater intrusion. Yet seawater intrusion has continued.
A massive water project in the Salinas Basin consisting of three components was approved by voters in 2001. This Salinas Valley Water Project, which is still incomplete, consists of changes to the Nacimiento Dam spillway, changes to dam operations, and an inflatable rubber dam to impound and distribute water on the Salinas River during the dry months for distribution to coastal farmers for irrigation.
Despite promises to the contrary, the Salinas Valley Water Project will not halt seawater intrusion. Its capacity has been oversold. Furthermore, its potential for expansion likely will be limited by impacts on endangered steelhead. Even analysis prepared for the General Plan Update 5 Draft Environmental Impact Report admits that by 2030, seawater intrusion will continue at 2300 acre-feet per year. This stark reality has not prevented County Supervisors from encouraging additional urban and agricultural development in the Salinas Valley based on the false promise of future water. Several large subdivisions in North County are pending approval before adoption of the new General Plan.
Search for water in the Pajaro Basin
The Harkins Slough Project was completed in 2002. The recycled water project will begin deliveries in March. Most of the coastal distribution system has been installed. However, the Agency is facing bankruptcy due to revenue losses incurred when the courts rescinded a water pumping fee it imposed without voter approval. Without the pumping fee, the Agency did not have the money for the import pipeline, and the State demanded return of its $6.8 million pipeline grant.
As a result, the project is stalled, the Agency may go under, and Santa Cruz County is considering declaring a water emergency for areas managed by the Agency. In Monterey County, the Agency’s problems have created scarcely a ripple. Several new subdivisions are slated to move ahead.
What will we do?
Is there anything more important than water?