Habitat Conservation Plan will protect fish, but mean less water for Santa Cruz—ramping up the city’s call for desalination
The topic on hand at the April 5 special Santa Cruz City Council meeting drew an impassioned crowd. They gathered to watch (and speak up) as the council heard the Water Department's presentation for a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The federally mandated plan would limit the amount of water the city can take from streams that are home to endangered and threatened species, including Coho and steelhead salmon, and set a plan for water operations in Santa Cruz for the next 30 years.
Following public comment, the council voted unanimously to allow the department to enter into HCP negotiations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). An approved plan is required to bring Santa Cruz into compliance with the Endangered Species Act before the city can continue taking water from the San Lorenzo River, Newell Creek and the North Coast streams.
“Our North Cost streams have been severely impacted for years—we need to do this not just because it’s legally required, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Mayor Ryan Coonerty tells GT.
While all attendees who spoke up were in favor of developing a form of habitat conservation, a trend in public comments surfaced that revealed the heart of the local water debate: the vast majority spoke out against utilizing a desalination plant to sustain the HCP.
An impromptu straw poll from one community member with the question, “Who wants to see alternatives to desal pursued first?” seemed to split the room on a long-running, multifaceted debate of whether a desalination plant is the most reasonable and viable option to secure the future of water in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Water Department and the Soquel Creek Water District have formed a joint agency, scwd2, to move forward on a proposed 2.5 million gallon per day desalination plant that would help Soquel Creek rest its depleted groundwater basin, and ensure that Santa Cruz had water in drought years.
Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, a local group opposed to a desal plant, support methods they say would be more environmentally and financially responsible, including conservation, water neutral expansion programs, and regional water exchanges between districts. Founder Rick Longinotti believes that this HCP is being used by the city to augment their case for building a desal plant. And while he supports better protection for fish, he argues that the plan’s resulting call for desalination will ultimately be more detrimental for fish species.
“We’ve been ignoring the fish habitat issue way too long. Trying to fix it now with a solution that worsens carbon emissions only contributes to making ocean water more acidic, threatening the entire ocean ecosystem,” says Longinotti. “We support a Habitat Conservation Plan that is based on conservation, not desalination.”
According to the water department, restricting the intake from local streams—the city’s only water source—will mean an estimated 800 to 1,600 million gallon per year reduction in the city's water supply. Water Department officials argue that this scale of reduction can only be compensated for with a supplemental supply project, such as the proposed desalination project.
Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher does not agree with desal opponents that additional conservation alone will be enough to meet future needs. He points to a February 2010 report by the State Department of Water Resources that shows that per-capita water use in Santa Cruz is already among the lowest in the state.
“While there is always more that could be done, there really isn't much more conservation out there to be had—not that would offset the reductions,” says Kocher. “It's an inescapable truth that we can't do this without more water.”
Kocher says that while it is still unclear if HCP negotiations with NOAA will specify the desalination plant as an alternative water supply, it will be up to the water department to convince NOAA the plan sufficiently protects the fish and that the city is capable of making the cutbacks it promises.
“[NOAA] will review the strategy to determine if it is adequately protective, and I don't expect anything other than agreement on that,” says Kocher. “I think we've put something out there that's pretty damn good and I would be disappointed if [NOAA] felt we fell short, because this really is the best we can do.”
Kocher estimates it may be possible to have the terms of the HCP settled by the end of this year, and the plan will then require an additional year for all necessary approvals and permits.
This timeline will run parallel to that of an estimated two-year process for the scwd2’s joint-use desalination plant, which is facing a development procedure including an Environmental Impact Report, permitting by state and national agencies and the approval of the Santa Cruz City Council and the Soquel Creek Water District Board.
Longinotti hopes that the public will be further involved with desalination plans as time moves forward and that the council will be open to making decisions that give desalination alternatives a chance.
“[The city council] does not understand that these alternatives are viable, because [they] have been told that they are not,” says Longinotti. “Our hope right now is that the city council will see that a desalination plant is too environmentally damaging and too expensive an idea.”
Coonerty, who emphasized the importance of the HCP in helping the city move forward with a strategy for protecting fish, says that desalination is a separate issue that will require further discussion over time.
“There is a lot of discussion to be had about what that alternative will be, whether it’s desalination or something else,” says Coonerty. “That's a discussion this community will have over the next couple of years.”
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