Santa Cruz’s new water director steps in at critical point
Rosemary Menard has her work cut out for her as she steps into the role of water director for the City of Santa Cruz.
Menard fills the vacancy left by Bill Kocher, a vocal proponent of desalination who had served as the city’s water director since 1986. Kocher retired in September, passing the torch to deputy director Linette Almond to serve as interim director until her own retirement in January.
Menard comes to the city in the wake of contentious discussion over desalination as well as what meteorologists have declared to be the driest January in California on record. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency for the state, and municipalities throughout California face looming water shortages.
Menard sat down with Good Times on a recent Monday afternoon in her still-being-unpacked office on Locust Street, just a week after she arrived in her new position. Coincidentally, it was just a day after the area saw some much-needed rain, though the 0.4 inches that fell then didn’t make much of an impact on our significant watershed depletion, Menard says.
“We need about a foot of rain in order to get the watershed saturated,” she explains, pushing a strand of shoulder-length hair from her face.
As of Feb. 5, roughly halfway through our winter wet season, the Santa Cruz area had received just 1.79 inches of rain. Normal rainfall for this time of year is about 18.6 inches, according to city water department officials. By comparison, during the 1976-77 drought—the city’s worst on record—rainfall totals measured 8.6 inches at the end of January 1977. The water year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. The amount of rainfall since Feb. 5 was still being calculated as of press time.
Though optimistic, Menard doesn’t mince words when it comes to the city’s current water supply situation.
“We’re currently critically dry,” she says. “It’s pretty bad.”
Current per capita water use is 95 gallons per person per day in the Santa Cruz water district; put another way, it takes the district an average of nearly nine million gallons of water every day to serve its customers. Brown has called for all citizens to cut back their water use by 20 percent this year, meaning the city’s water staff will need to take swift action.
A week after Menard started the job, the city’s Water Commission voted to recommend increasing a Stage 1 Water Alert to a Stage 3 Water Alert. Should the city council vote for the increase at its Feb. 11 meeting, which takes place after this issue goes to press, customer water limits will be implemented and financial penalties will be meted out for exceeding them. The change would increase conservation from a voluntary 5 percent to a mandatory 25 percent. The city lists a number of ways residents can conserve on its website, cityofsantacruz.com.
As water director, Menard will oversee a department that serves 90,000 customers in the Santa Cruz and Live Oak areas, during a time when the city has ramped up efforts to include residents in water supply discussions. That includes the pending formation of a citizens’ water supply advisory committee, among other outreach procedures.
The drought will be a major priority in the weeks and months to come.
“We need to ensure we are managing our resources effectively,” Menard says. “I’ve been around enough and seen enough to know that having a fresh set of eyes is often an asset, but I’ve been very impressed by the quality of and the knowledge of the staff here.”
City officials announced Menard’s hiring on Jan. 16.
“We are very pleased to have Ms. Menard come aboard at a critical point in our water supply discussions,” City Manager Martin Bernal said in a press release. “She brings a wealth of leadership and experience in water operations, conservation, administration, and policy to our organization.”
Though new to Santa Cruz, Menard is no stranger to the greater San Francisco Bay Area, having grown up in San Leandro. Her parents still live there, in the house she grew up in. She is now adjusting to Santa Cruz after a stint in Reno, living in a furnished vacation rental in Seabright as she gets her bearings.
Most recently she served as director of community services and water resources for Washoe County in Nevada. Prior to that, she held similar positions in Seattle and Portland. She earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Washington and, years later, earned a master’s degree in public administration from the same institution. Her move from biology to public policy is largely attributed to an internship she did with a Seattle city councilmember’s office. As part of that position, she had to evaluate the budget for the Seattle water department and got to know many people within that division. That led to a position as the water conservation manager for the City of Seattle.
“From there, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow as a manager and develop my skills,” as well as provide municipalities with leadership and her expertise in problem solving, she says.
Though the new gig brings numerous challenges, Menard says that is a big part of the appeal for her.
“Here is a really great opportunity to really use those skills,” she says. “This is the kind of stuff I’m made to do.”
Rick Longinotti, founder of Desal Alternatives, says he has a good impression of Menard so far and believes her hiring represents something of a sea change in the city’s water policy management.
"I think we're already seeing it," he says. "On the sixth day on the job, she was at the Water Commission meeting and she handled some rough stuff."
He says he was pleased to see how she interacted with others at the meeting and seemed to diffuse some of the tensions. He plans to meet with her personally soon.
"I think she's fully behind the work of the water supply advisory committee," said Longinotti. "That's a great indicator that she is open to input."
Menard says education on water conservation and maintaining an informed populace will be key focal points of her work.
“Figuring out how to become partners with the community is one of the challenges we have to address,” says Menard. “That’s one of the things I’d really like to work on—I would expect to have a lot of interaction with the water supply committee—though I don’t know entirely what it’s going to look like [yet].”
Having been in the position as water director for a short time, Menard says she is still in the assessment process.
“It’s extremely important to be data-driven and not jump to conclusions,” she says, adding that she imagines the next couple of months to be something of a learning and listening tour.
She emphasizes that a major part of the messaging will be that everyone needs to do their part to conserve water.
She and department staff will be working with the current framework for water shortage planning and finding ways to adapt it to the current conditions. That will likely involve looking at ways to incentivize and encourage conservation, while also looking at possibilities of penalization.
“Everyone needs to be looking at whatever they can do,” she says. “We have to be conservative, we have to be cautious and we have to ensure we don’t find ourselves in a place where our community is out of water.”
Menard’s initial approach could prove key in garnering community support at a time when everyone needs to pitch in when it comes to conservation and finding solutions. Her predecessor, Kocher, was criticized by desalination opponents for his role as a founding member of CalDesal, a pro-desalination advocacy board comprised of numerous water agencies with a stated mission of advancing the use of desalination in California.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know the community and working really collaboratively to address the issues we have,” Menard says. “I know there are big challenges, but I think if we work together, we can do what needs to be done.”
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