Santa Cruz County’s Complicated Water System, Explained

PUBLISHED JUN 10, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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In Santa Cruz County, 10 separate entities manage the water supply.

In Santa Cruz County, 10 separate entities manage the water supply.   Image by California Local

In a 1991 article examining then-Governor Pete Wilson’s efforts to manage the state’s ongoing drought, a New York Times scribe described California’s water system as seemingly “invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip.” In fact, there is no “system,” but a complex, labyrinthine tangle of administrative and government entities that oversee and, they hope, deliver the 40 million acre-feet of water consumed in California in a typical year to the farmers, businesses, and just ordinary people who rely on it for drinking, irrigation, putting out fires and all of the other uses that human beings have for water.

In California, however, about 80 percent of all water consumption is taken up by agriculture, to irrigate cropland in a state that would otherwise be mostly desert.

An acre-foot, incidentally, is a unit used only to measure water, equivalent to the amount it takes to cover one acre (43,650 square feet, slightly smaller than a football field minus the end zones) with a one-foot-deep puddle—about 326,000 gallons

So who’s in charge of this massive amount  of water? To call California’s water-management structure “decentralized” would be an acre-foot sized understatement. There are six types of entities that operate water systems in the state: cities, county districts, public water utilities, mutual water companies that serve mainly rural areas, mobile home parks that run their own water systems—and special districts. 

Other than cities, the latter category is in charge of bringing water to more Californians than any other type of entity, serving approximately 11 million people. By one count, there are 537 special districts for water in the state. Water special districts are either “dependent,” meaning that they are governed by a local city council or county board of supervisors, or “independent.”

As the description would imply, independent districts are governed by their own, dedicated committees with members generally elected by voters in the district, or appointed by the county board of supervisors.

Local Water Democratized

In Santa Cruz County alone, there are 10 special districts whose primary function is managing and delivering water supply. In addition, the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville operate their own municipal water departments. The special districts range from the County Service Agency 54 Summit West, which through the Summit West Mutual Water Company served 125 water connections, to the Soquel Creek Water District which manages more than 15,000 connections for 40,000 residents.

CSA 54 Summit West, on the other hand, was so inactive that in 2017, the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)  issued a report declaring it basically useless, and recommending the district be dissolved to save a few bucks. As of 2021, according to records on file at LAFCO, CSA 54 remained active, however.

The Soquel Creek district falls into the “independent” category, governed by a five-member board directly elected to four-year-terms by voters within the district’s boundaries. The board holds public meetings twice per month, on the first and third Tuesdays, at the district’s offices in Soquel—though during the COVID-19 pandemic meetings were conducted by teleconference. 

Government by elected board is the norm among Santa Cruz’s water districts, with Central Water District,  San Lorenzo Valley Water District and the Pajaro Valley Water Management agency all run in similar fashion.

Central Water District, formerly known as the Central County Water District, serves more than 800 connections in and around the unincorporated city of Aptos. In its 2017 report, LAFCO recommended that the district hire an additional employee, to better “enhance services and/or eliminate deficiencies.”

Since 2016, the Central Water District, Soquel Creek Water District, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department along with thousands of smaller water systems and private wells have been part of the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency, a body governed by an 11-member board that is charged with replenishing and sustaining the depleted groundwater levels in the mid-county basin.

That agency was created after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2014 called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, in response to California’s seemingly endless drought. The law required that any seriously overdrawn groundwater basin be managed by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. The technical term, actually, is “groundwater overdraft,” which means, simply, that more water is being drawn out of the ground than is going back in. 

Local Sustainability Efforts Pay Off

The most obvious effect of groundwater overdraft is less water to go around for everyone. But as a Stanford University study detailed, there are other costs as well—among them, more money spent on pumping water out of the ground, as well as on deepening existing wells and digging new ones. Private wells can dry up, causing conflicts between neighbors and between landowners and businesses—in winemaking regions, for example, where vineyards guzzle thousands of gallons every day. Rural, lower-income areas are hit especially hard, where the cost of digging new wells is completely out of reach.

Other problems caused by groundwater overdraft, according to the Stanford study “include land subsidence and infrastructure damage, harm to groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and the economic losses from a more unreliable water supply for California.”

In 2014, Brown and the legislature gave groundwater agencies whose basins were in “critical overdraft” a deadline of 2020 to submit their sustainability plans to the state’s Department of Water Resources. The Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency met that deadline, as did the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, the body tapped with meeting groundwater goals in that region of the county. 

In fact, according to a 2019 report by the county’s Environmental Health division, there was “plenty to celebrate” when it came to progress toward groundwater sustainability.  Not only were the deadlines for completing sustainability plans met, but the Soquel Creek Water District obtained a $50 million grant for its Pure Water Soquel project, which uses water purification and recycling technology to replenish the basin and hold off seawater contamination of the groundwater supply, another cause of overdraft in Santa Cruz County. And the population of steelhead trout throughout the county’s waters was also back on the rise, according to the report, a sign that recovery from the lengthy drought was in sight.

The good news arrived just in time, because Santa Cruz County, like the rest of California, was not in the clear yet. According to 40 years of rainfall data obtained by The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the county experienced 40 percent less rain in the 2020-2021 wet season than would be expected in a typical year, while in the Santa Cruz Mountains, rainfall totals were 58 percent below expected levels. The numbers were an ominous harbinger that a new drought could be just around the corner.

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