Santa Cruz water director calls for rationing to continue

Santa Cruz Sentinel
October 2, 2014

With high unlikeliness that Santa Cruz will receive enough precipitation in the coming year to escape the persistent drought, Water Director Rosemary Menard recommends extending residential rationing on a month-to-month basis.

The record-keeping year that ended Sept. 30 was one of the driest on record, with the city receiving just 13 inches of rainfall compared to the average of 31 inches. The city would have to receive 120 percent of typical precipitation during the next 12 months to end the drought declaration, Menard said.

"Based on analysis of past local drought and rainfall patterns, the likelihood of receiving that much rain is about 24 percent," Menard said.

Mark Strudley, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey, said the latest prediction is only 50-50 that El Niño conditions will develop this fall and winter, and if they do they will be weak. El Niño is a measure of sea temperature rise in the Pacific Ocean, and only during a strong El Niño could greater-than-normal seasonal rainfall occur, Strudley said.

"Even then, there is no guarantee at all (of more rain), and it says nothing about individual storms," he said.

Since initiating rationing in May for the first time in nearly 25 years, the city had planned to evaluate the program before the end of October, which historically marks the beginning of the rainy season. Single-family customers with a household of four receive 10 units each month, or about 7,500 gallons, though customers can apply for more water if their households are larger.

Monday, the city's Water Commission will make a recommendation to the City Council on Menard's request to extend rationing. The panel also will consider forwarding to the council recommendations on the Conservation Master Plan.

Amid the uncertainty about the year ahead, there is good news, Menard said.

In September, Santa Cruz customers reduced use 30 percent overall compared to the average consumption in 2012 and 2013. Just 4.6 percent of customers' bills in September included overuse fees, compared to 5.3 percent in August.

"I believe that makes our community one of the top water savers in the entire state," Menard said.

The water utility has forgiven, through customer participation in "water school," 40 percent of $1.2 million in penalties billed to date. Water users can have their first fine waived by participating in a 90-minute session educating them about the drought-vulnerable water supply and conservation methods designed to boost it.

Meanwhile, the condition of Loch Lomond Reservoir, the city's largest water storage facility, is strong — at 60 percent of capacity compared to the 49 percent predicted for end of September.

"Starting the new water year with more water in the reservoir than expected puts us in better shape to face the unknown conditions that lie ahead," Menard said.

Santa Cruz-based Ecology Action reports countywide water customers have pledged to conserve at least 1.6 million gallons annually as part of a push by regional agencies that belong to the Water Conservation Coalition of Santa Cruz County. The goal is to reach 5 million gallons saved annually, and representatives have collected pledges at community events that will soon be added to the tally.

This month, Ecology Action will offer its last free conservation workshops of the season.

There will be water-wise irrigation classes in Scotts Valley on Saturday and in Soquel on Oct. 11, as well as a laundry-to-landscape gray water workshop Oct. 18 in Santa Cruz. For details, visit