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Dec 21st
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Waiting on Winter

news1 droughtSanta Cruz has become a model of conservation in the drought; how much better can we do?

Santa Cruzans hoping for a rainy celebratory deluge this fall have been disappointed to hear the party’s been postponed indefinitely, if not canceled altogether. The National Weather Service (NWS), which predicted that El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) would bring tropical storms by winter of 2014, has been backing off of its prediction this month.

As temperatures over the Pacific Ocean failed to heat up this summer, the NWS has downgraded the likelihood of El Niño from 80 percent to 65 percent—not in and of itself a devastating blow of confidence to anyone feeling optimistic. But the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is pegging the chances at closer to 50 percent, and both agencies say it would be a “weak” or “moderate” El Niño—not a strong one—if it happens at all.

Other forecasts indicate a crapshoot at best. A research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently told the San Jose Mercury News he’s predicting 75 percent chance of another dry winter.

Meanwhile, the city of Santa Cruz’s water department is hitting a big water anniversary.

It was one year ago this week that Santa Cruz pulled out of talks to build a regional desalination plant, which officials had said was designed to protect us from 100-year droughts—worst-case scenarios, like the drought of 1977. California’s current drought has entered its third year and rainfall was almost as bad this past year as it was in 1977. So as far as weather goes, it could get close to that imagined worst-case scenario drought if this keeps up.

Over the last eight years, the city has been forced to enter water restrictions during five of them, and with the unpredictable threats of climate change breathing down our neck, city water department spokesperson Eileen Cross says it may no longer be safe to call these situations “a 100-year drought,” meaning we can no longer count on these conditions coming just once every century.

What we had thought was the as-bad-as-it-gets weather snafu could soon turn out to be a phenomenon altogether more common. And without knowing what the coming winter will bring, Cross can’t help but feel a little worried.

“While our community has really stepped up to the plate and cut back their water usage during rationing this summer, will we be able to keep it up for the long haul if our water supply conditions don’t improve?” Cross asks GT rhetorically, via email.

Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water districts have garnered national media attention these past few months for their conservation efforts as they cut outdoor irrigation as part of stage three—of five—water restrictions and mandatory water rationing. The Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek districts, already two of the best conservers in the state, have cut back water usage more than 27 and 20 percent respectively this summer.

Officials around California are using the local agencies as a model for what they will have to do next year if rains don’t come this winter. Some locals, of course, would be forced to tighten their belts further.

Stage 4 water restrictions, if imposed in the city, could trigger even tighter regulations on outdoor water use, including a prohibition on washing one’s vehicle. Because the city’s water district relies almost entirely on surface water from streams, rivers and the Loch Lomond reservoir, the district will need to survive on what it can get until we see another wet season.

The slightly better news is that the reservoir is still at 65 percent, the same water level it had this past February and an estimated 30 percent higher than it was this time in 1977, says city spokesperson Keith Sterling. Stream flows are also higher than they were in 1977, Cross says.

Another promising sign is the work local water districts have been doing together. The Water Conservation Coalition, a team of all the county’s water districts, has been doing more outreach and expanding its partnership with Ecology Action. The group sends volunteers to festivals and events to spread awareness and is revamping its website, watersavingtips.org, this week.

One of the coalition’s major initiatives is a pledge to cut back on water usage between 20 and 50 gallons per person, and it instructs people how to meet these goals. Signing it can seem daunting at first, even if it’s only symbolic, but people have been very responsive, says Ecology Action vice president Kirsten Liske.

“People are really hesitant to sign a pledge,” Liske says. “That means to me that it works. If they take the pledge, they know they’re obligated.”

Liske says the newly launched program has so far reduced consumption in the county by more than 1000 gallons daily. Ecology Action’s goal is to save 250,000 gallons daily, which would be about one gallon from every person in the county.

Being grounded

Outside the city of Santa Cruz, most county water agencies rely on groundwater, and many of their wells have been over-drafted. With the water stored naturally underground, another drought year doesn’t put those agencies in the same kind of short-term pinch as it does for the city.

It does still make problems worse in the long term.

“We’re going into the game like we’re ready for the next drought,” says Piret Harmon, general manager for Scotts Valley Water District, which is in stage one—of three—water restrictions, and has cut back 20 percent on water usage this summer. “If we prepare for the worst, we’re better off than if we’re hoping there’s going to be El Niño or some other magic and then being proven down the road that it’s not going to happen.“

Such worries are all the more real for coastal groundwater agencies like Soquel Creek Water District, where creeping saltwater intrusion continues to threaten freshwater wells.

Ever since the city pulled the plug on its end of the regional desalination deal, Soquel Creek Water District has been searching for its next move. The district is looking at doing a district-only desal plant, as well as doing a different regional desal plant—this one shared with Moss Landing. Another possible plan would force district residents to cut their usage down to 50 gallons per person daily for 20 years —effectively putting an end to all outdoor irrigation and lawn-watering.

Kim Adamson, Soquel Creek general manager, says the one good thing about the drought is that it reminds people to conserve. She worries that if and when the drought ends, people might go back to thinking they can take longer showers.

“When the rain comes, whether it’s this year or not, we’re not going to slow down in terms of conservation,” Adamson says. “That’s our most important message right now.”

El scorcho

It isn’t just water officials who are stressing about the drought.

Coupled with high temperatures, California’s dry grasslands are creating a perfect storm of frightening fire conditions all over the state.
“Not only are we having this dry year, but we’re having some of the warmer temperatures in California history so far this year,” says Duane Dykema, meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Monterey branch. “When you put those two things together, that really pushes the fire danger way up.”

So far, Santa Cruz Cal Fire assistant chief Steven Robertson, says county firefighters have been very lucky, although a good chunk have been sent north near Mount Shasta to fight fires there. Fire fighters have kept all fires this season to well under an acre.

“We just hope this isn’t the start of a permanent kind of condition,” Robertson says of the dry weather. “We’re not saying one way or another about global warming. There have been historic periods where there have been droughts longer than this. Hundreds of years ago, they had some really long droughts.” PHOTO: Chip Scheuer

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