She’s back! No California water shortage would be complete without Felicity Barringer, the New York Times’ fearless San Francisco-based environmental reporter. She established herself with the nation’s “newspaper of record” as the Judith Miller of (Phony) Drought in 2009 with her stories of suffering agribusinessmen, illustrated with superb photos of lean-jawed plutocrats in cowboy hats, smooth hands clutching hoes in the pitiless sun’s mean glare. In the Year of the Phony Drought, Barringer stood shoulder to shoulder with Westlands Water District, Sean Hannity, Paul Rodriguez and the Latino Water Coalition, Kole Upton and Families Protecting the Valley, and representatives Dennis Cardoza, Fairy Shrimp Slayer-Merced, and Devon Nunes, Off His Medication-Visalia.
This year she is taking a more suburban approach with an article on the City of Santa Cruz. Of course, she is too much of a lady and the Times is too polite a newspaper to entertain suggestions that UC Santa Cruz is part of that city’s water woes. Having lost its last attempted land grab in court, UCSC bides its time in a termed settlement with the city.
There is no chat about desalination plans in the county but Felicity managed to catch up with Tim Quinn, executive director of Association of California Water Agencies, former deputy general manager of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Quinn was just off a Monterey County golf course. Barringer doesn’t report which golf course and it is probably a business expense anyway for the executive director of ACWA to play Pebble Beach (green fee $500) or Spy Glass (green fee $385). -- blj
A Thirsty California Puts a Premium on Water
Felicity Barringer, TheNewYorkTimes
Santa Cruz, California: The municipal water utility in this city, home to wide beaches, sun-kissed weekend getaways and evocative alternative scholarship, just got tough. Last week it started rationing water - for nonfarmers, the most draconian response to date to California's debilitating drought.
The message to customers: Use more than your allotment, and it will cost you. A lot. Water bills below the allocation run $40 or so. Go above it, and fines pegged to the amount of excess water used will quickly double, triple or quadruple that bill.
"We live in a state where water supplies that are there 100 percent of the time, with 100 percent of reliability, don't exist," said Toby Goddard, the administrative services manager for the Santa Cruz Water Department. "It would be shortsighted of a utility to sell all it has to you now and not have anything for you a year out."
Santa Cruz, whose fresh water supplies come from the shrinking San Lorenzo River and a small reservoir, has gone further than other strapped utilities in embracing the idea of rationing, with fines for those who exceed their allotted shares. But other utilities around the state now have a tiered pricing system. Basic water use comes cheap. Consumption that is compatible with modest landscaping comes at a slightly higher cost. Excessive use comes at premium prices.
California's utilities, like the East Bay Municipal Utility District near San Francisco or the Eastern Municipal Water District in Southern California's sprawling Inland Empire, use their bills to drive home the ethic of conservation. "Thirty years ago, everybody took costs and divided by anticipated sales and found an average rate," said Tim Quinn, the head of the Association of California Water Agencies, or ACWA.
"We haven't lived in that world for over 30 years."
During that time, Quinn said, utilities worked to change the equipment in people's homes, backing building-code requirements for low-flow toilets, water-restricting shower heads and washing machines and dishwashers with low water consumption. "Now we're trying to change behavior," he said.
The message irritates some people, particularly those with mansions surrounded by lush lawns and ornamental plantings. One person from a district just south of here was playing golf with Quinn at a Monterey country club recently. When he learned that his golf partner worked in water services, the man complained bitterly about his $5,000 monthly bill. Quinn replied, "I think your water agency is trying to tell you something."
In some places, that message has become more personal. Starting about two decades ago, in water districts in Southern California like Irvine Ranch and San Juan Capistrano, rate-setters decided that the fairest way to encourage conservation was to assess how much each individual account needed and then to set tiers. A family with six children needed more essential water than a family with two; a house in a warm, dry microclimate needed more than a house shrouded in fog.
This process of water "budgeting" is now in place in 20 of the more than 700 California water districts, and it is spreading fast. "It's what everyone is shifting toward," said Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
"It's based on efficiency. Those who are inefficient pay more," said Paul D. Jones II, the general manager of the Eastern Municipal Water District.
Water budgeting, known in the industry as "allocation pricing," may violate California law, which requires that the cost of a government service like water delivery be based on the cost of providing the service. But its cousin, tiered pricing, has suffered a legal setback. In August, an Orange County judge ruled that San Juan Capistrano's water agency had not sufficiently tied its establishment of water tiers to the cost of serving those tiers.
The consulting firm Raftelis Financial Consultants is working with the agency to establish a legally defensible link between the newly adjusted tiered pricing and the cost of providing pipes, water storage and other services. Sanjay Gaur, a manager for Raftelis, said that, in general, as monthly water bills around the state had increased to almost $50 from about $30, customers were noticing.
"The water industry in the past has been hidden - people didn't know where they got their water," Gaur said. "Now, because of the drought, things are going to another level. People are going to pay more attention."
In Santa Cruz, they have been paying attention for years. Conservation has been a way of life here for a generation, since a bad drought in the late 1980s. Now, in the summer months, the Santa Cruz water district sends, on average, a total of 188 million gallons a month to its 21,700 residential customers - 94,000 people. In the winter months, it sends 131 million gallons.
These amounts represent about a 30 percent drop from what was used in 1987, before the last major drought. Paradoxically, conservation has been so ingrained, Goddard said, that it is difficult for customers to find ways to save more. The new limit on monthly residential use is less than 7,500 gallons.
Local residents want to help - though they may not want to pay more.
"We've used too much water for too long. We've become wasteful," said Marilyn Berg, 76, who with her husband, Joe, owns a three-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath, two-story home in town that is frequently rented.
Are the new fines fair? "Absolutely," Joe Berg said.
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Newsmaker 2013: Water posed pressing political, environmental issues in Santa Cruz County
By J.M. Brown
SANTA CRUZ -- Simply put, 2013 was a watershed year for water agencies in Santa Cruz County.
Often in short supply in California, water became an even greater environmental and political focal point in 2013 -- the driest on record for some parts of the state -- after the city of Santa Cruz drew down its reservoir to the lowest level in nearly two decades and pressed the pause button on a controversial seawater desalination facility.
Mounting criticism from the public and a host of state and federal regulators demonstrated the uphill battle city leaders faced in finalizing an environmental analysis of the project and winning approval from voters in 2014. In late November, the City Council voted to form a 14-member advisory panel to closely examine alternatives and make recommendations for supplementing and managing a water supply impacted by severe drought and mandated fish habitat restoration.
The city's move to "reset" the debate over water after nearly a decade of planning for desalination sent Santa Cruz's desal partner, the Soquel Creek Water District, into an immediate inventory of its options for addressing saltwater intrusion in its over-pumped groundwater basin. The city also faced a judicial roadblock in extending additional water to UC Santa Cruz to support campus growth plans.
All this took place as the city and district underwent changes in leadership.
Bill Kocher, who ran the Santa Cruz department for 27 years, retired in September. An effort is underway to name a replacement.
The Soquel Creek district hired Kim Adamson, who managed a water and sewer agency in Washington state, to replace 16-year director Laura Brown, who retired in 2012 for medical reasons.
Scotts Valley Water District also hired a new director from within Santa Cruz's ranks -- water finance chief Piret Harmon -- while the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency lost a board member who led the district through a budget morass. Dennis Osmer resigned from the South County board amid a disagreement about how to restore the agency's overdrafted basin.
For all these reasons, the Sentinel staff chose water as a top newsmaker for 2013, and the topic looks to be front and center throughout 2014.
The Santa Cruz City Council in 2005 voted to pursue desal as the city's preferred water supply project while continuing conservation and initiating restrictions during dry periods.
Concerns about the environmental and economic toll of desalting ocean water increased after the city released an environmental analysis in May. During a rare three-month public review period, the city received more than 400 comments and questions, including criticism of proposed pump station locations near residential areas and a school that galvanized opposition.
The only alternative to desalination identified in the report as having the potential to reliably supply enough water to solve problems faced by the city and the Soquel Creek district was the direct reuse of recycled wastewater. The city proposed piloting a reuse project within the desal facility with the possibility of converting the plant once the state approves direct reuse, with Kocher saying, "We wouldn't be proposing a desal plant" if direct reuse were legal.
Still, in August, then-mayor Hilary Bryant joined City Manager Martín Bernal in recommending the council suspend the pursuit of desal and re-examine other alternatives rejected in the environmental report.
"We listened and we heard that we are certainly not in agreement, and we recognize the need to re-engage in a community involved process to evaluate our water problem," Bryant said in August. "If nothing else, it's my job and the council's job to listen to the community."
Three council members will nominate members to the 14-seat Water Supply Advisory Committee and appointments will be made in February.
The county's water resources division is expected in January to issue a report on the potential for sharing water among the area's multiple agencies.
The city also is expected next month to release details of its new water conservation master plan. Already a leader in conservation, Santa Cruz has been laying the groundwork to save more aggressively in coming years, noting the greatest savings can be found in higher-efficiency clothes washers.
Meanwhile, dry weather -- seasonal rainfall is just 15 percent of normal in Santa Cruz -- has caused the city to drain Loch Lomond Reservoir to about 66 percent, the lowest level since the mid 1990s.
The city has extended restrictions on daytime landscape irrigation and other measures set to expire in October, a month that also saw the city bring online a new 6-million-gallon tank at the Bay Street Reservoir after 18 months of construction. A second replacement tank is expected to be completed in 2014.
In addition to low rainfall, the city also saw a cutback in supply as it halted its diversion of Laguna Creek as part of ongoing negotiations with fisheries regulators to restore habitat in the North Coast streams and San Lorenzo River watershed for threatened and endangered species.
A group called Habitat and Watershed Caretakers prevailed in its legal fight against the city and university to block an expansion of water and sewer service on hundreds of undeveloped acres identified for growth. In a 2008 agreement that settled lawsuits between the university, city, county and preservation groups, UCSC agreed to house two-thirds of new students through 2020 on campus in an effort to reduce traffic, water, property rental and other impacts in town.
The state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court's findings of fault with an environmental analysis of the project, but the city and university have not announced their next step.
In the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, officials released a draft environmental impact report saying a plan to boost groundwater supply would cost 30 acres of farmland. The proposal calls for deeper conservation, as well as storage and recharge projects for an agency whose finances got a boost in October after a court struck down challenges to its fees.