Rebecca Rubin, Public Outreach Coordinator, Soquel Creek Water District
Eileen Cross, Community Relations, Santa Cruz Water Department
Despite the downpours, flooding, and battering rains of December and January, it is too soon to declare an end to the multi-year drought that has gripped the state. It seems counterintuitive to think of still being in a drought after the series of drenching storms that damaged our coastal region. But droughts are a complex phenomenon. Just as severe droughts can take consecutive dry years to develop, they can also take multiple wet years to come to an end.
The series of atmospheric rivers after years of drought are a perfect example of what meteorologists are calling “weather whiplash,” the result of extreme shifts in weather. Climatologists warn that such extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense, creating additional challenges to providing our communities with clean, safe, and reliable drinking water. Droughts deplete water supplies, and a single wet year doesn’t necessarily end that threat.
That is especially true for the Soquel Creek Water District (SqCWD) and the City of Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD). The SqCWD relies entirely on groundwater for its water supply. Even before the current drought, the basin that provides the district’s water supply was critically over-drafted with seawater intrusion occurring at the coastline. Customers do an outstanding job of conserving, but those efforts have not been enough to offset the decreased recharge rate of the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Basin.
The aquifers within the groundwater basin take time to recharge – requiring years to recover from drought and over-drafting. It is estimated that 5–7% of rainfall naturally recharges our local aquifers. Capturing stormwater can be more challenging than one might think. The County of Santa Cruz teamed with local water agencies to investigate stormwater capture projects as a potential solution to groundwater overdraft and seawater intrusion, but the technical studies found that the local geology, topography, and lack of available land for spreading basins and percolation ponds make these types of projects challenging.
The SCWD stores as much excess water from storms as it can – and as its water rights allow. The city relies on the Loch Lomond Reservoir for water during the dry season, but even when full it provides only a year’s worth of supply, making the city vulnerable to multi-year droughts. The city is studying a variety of water supply alternatives to augment its water supply and adapt to a changing climate, including potential aquifer storage and recovery, stormwater management, recycled water and desalination.
Pure Water Soquel will recycle and purify water from the Santa Cruz wastewater treatment facility to replenish the groundwater basin and prevent further seawater contamination. This will provide a reliable, sustainable, and high-quality water supply that is resilient to a changing climate and drought conditions. It will provide a beneficial use for wastewater that would otherwise be discharged to Monterey Bay.
Preserving our common groundwater basin and capturing stormwater runoff can be done at home. SqCWD encourages businesses and households to capture stormwater through the use of rain gardens, redirecting downspouts into landscaping, and rainwater harvesting. For a complete list of SqCWD rebates, visit https://www.soquelcreekwater.org/rebates. For a list of rebates available to SCWD customers, visit https://www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/water/conservation/rebates
Living with droughts and extreme weather requires resiliency and adaptation. The consensus among scientists is that human-caused changes to our climate will bring more frequent and severe droughts, and more extreme weather events. We may have a temporary reprieve from the latest drought, but continue to encourage community members to use water wisely and learn more about why development of diversified and reliable water supplies remain a priority for our local water agencies.
We face an uncertain future when it comes to climate, weather, and water. Droughts and floods are an unfortunate but inevitable part of the climate in our region. As regional partners, the City of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District are committed to meeting the challenges of climate change and we are confident that our customers will continue to partner with us to maintain a clean, safe, reliable, and resilient water supply.