Endangered Species, Desalinization and Area Growth are all Linked
by Kevin Collins
Water supply problems for the Santa Cruz City Water Department and the Soquel Creek Water District are tied to a coincidence of events now attracting public attention. These events are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pressure on the City for violations of the Endangered Species Act, and the proposal for construction of a seawater Desalinization Plant (Desal) as a joint agreement between the Soquel Cr. Water District and the City.
For many years the City Water Dept. has been operating in practical violation of the Federal Endangered Species Act and has, at times, done severe damage to fish populations. The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service is expecting the City to prepare and put in effect a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for endangered salmon and steelhead. Other wildlife are also involved. This HCP agreement would reduce City surface water diversion (extraction) from several north coast streams and the San Lorenzo River by nearly 20%. This reduction in water diversion will be a serious impact on water supplies during drought years. The Soquel system uses wells that delay direct impacts upon stream flows, but these impacts occur nonetheless.
NOAA has the authority to impose expensive fines on the City. They (NOAA) have delayed for years their use of this authority. The fish have continued to decline in part because of low stream flows. Complex studies set the acceptable amount of water that can be diverted from each stream without doing significant harm to salmon.
Many people are upset about the proposal for a Desalinization plant. It is very expensive, produces expanding greenhouse gas emissions and will probably facilitate housing growth. A Desal plant will also have biological impacts on ocean life. Growth, of course, increases water demand and will overwhelm benefits from increased water conservation and any water benefit from the use of Desal.
Growth is the wild card in this complex equation. The City supplies water to large parts of the County. Both City and County growth are factors. The University Expansion is the first major growth issue currently involved.
Some claim that increasing water conservation is possible and would make a Desal plant unnecessary. To accomplish the extent of conservation necessary in a severe drought without also causing damage to already endangered fish populations has never been done before. Such limits on water use would be regarded as draconian by many residents and would take a serious political and enforcement commitment on the part of City, County and water system officials. This issue will be a matter of public debate for years to come.
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