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Santa Cruz County, water districts explore groundwater sustainability agency

By Samantha Clark, Santa Cruz Sentinel

POSTED: 12/10/15, 8:56 PM PST 

Originally posted at

LIVE OAK >> Santa Cruz County and some local water districts are forming a new agency tasked with bringing the basin stretching from Santa Cruz to Aptos into balance.

First-time state regulations signed in 2014 amid the historic drought require that all basins are sustainable by 2040.

More water has been pumped out of the Santa Cruz Mid-County Basin than has been naturally replenished by rainfall. As a result, the basin is in overdraft and seawater is creeping in.

At an informational meeting Thursday night in Live Oak, more than 60 people joined water officials to talk about forming the Santa Cruz Mid-County Groundwater Agency.

“If we don’t do anything, we’ll lose our wells to seawater intrusion,” said John Ricker, water resources division director for the county. “We’ve lost stream flow for fish and other uses as groundwater levels went down.”

The basin needs an average of 1,500 to 2,000 acre-feet of water returning back into it each year to balance the deficit, according to the Soquel Creek Water District. An acre foot of water is 326,000 gallons — and enough to irrigate a half-acre of strawberries or supply water to two families of four for a year.

The new agency, which could form as early as July with state approval, would be responsible for monitoring the basin and developing and carrying out a sustainability management plan. Under the state law, such a plan has to be finished by 2020 and needs to take into account future effects of climate change, including sea level rise, reduced groundwater recharge and increased demand for irrigation.

“The solutions are probably going to be a combination of methods,” Ricker said. “We need to conserve by reducing pumping and increase storage for recharge.”

To fund the basin’s management and new sustainability projects, water users could see higher fees in a few years in addition to conservation.

“I’m pleased with where this planning is going,” said Peg Popken, a realtor in Scotts Valley, who came to the meeting to keep her clients informed. “If you can’t shower, you can’t flush, if you can’t grow vegetables in your backyard, you don’t have much quality of life.”

Santa Cruz, Central Water District, Soquel Water District, small water companies and private well owners all use the Santa Cruz Mid-County Basin. Overpumping the basin began in the 1980s, and the water levels fell to their lowest point in 2003, according to the Soquel Creek Water District.

“We have to pay that back somehow,” said Jon Kennedy, a private well representative and chair of the agency formation committee. “We’re going to need an alternative supply in addition to continued conservation.”

There are two other basins of concern in the county — Pajaro and Santa Margarita in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. Pajaro already has a basin management plan, and Santa Margarita is expected to follow suit soon, Ricker said.

The new agency would be a joint powers authority consisting of multiple agencies and would likely look like the Soquel-Aptos Groundwater Management Committee, which consists of elected officials, water experts and private well representatives. The project’s website is