Water, Water More Water. No Water. Santa Cruz County Water Dilemma


Water is the character of our beachfront towns, rivers, and lakes and gives us life. We surf, paddle, swim and live in a dance with water.  Where does the water that sustains and soothes us come from, where does it go, and how and where does it flow?

Water Sources, Storage and Drought. 

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. – Benjamin Franklin

What IS the source of the water that sustains our life and lifestyle in Santa Cruz County? In Santa Cruz County, as we often brand ourselves as independent thinkers, it’s interesting to note that we are independent water-gatherers. The county has no connection to the state water system and our water supply is locally derived. Nearly 100% of our water supply comes from our streams and groundwater aquifers (a body of permeable rock which can contain or transmit groundwater) which are fed by local rainfall. 

Santa Cruz County Aquifers:

  • Aromas
  • Pajaro Valley
  • Purisima
  • Santa Margarita 

Approximately 80% of our water supply comes from four major ground water aquifers. The other 10% of our water comes from water diverted from local streams. 

  • The City of Santa Cruz, Live Oak and parts of the North Coast rely on surface water from streams and reservoirs.
  • The San Lorenzo Valley uses both surface and groundwater. 
  • From Capitola/Soquel south to Watsonville, as well as Scotts Valley, water supply is almost entirely reliant on groundwater resources. 
  • Approximately 55% of water use in our County is for residential uses, and 45% is for agriculture, which is concentrated in the Pajaro Valley

There are 7 water districts in Santa Cruz County: 

Here we are, March / April 2023, and you might be wondering if we are finally out of drought status. Depends on who you ask. There is a lot of current press about California and Santa Cruz County now being out of a drought. However, there is a more nuanced picture that might be worth examining. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes it official: the recent rain and snow in California has wiped out exceptional and extreme drought in our state. And La Nina is officially over after its two-year residence over the Pacific Ocean. It causes a reduction of rainfall in the eastern to central Pacific Ocean. Maps released March 23, 2023 from the U.S. Drought Monitor show drought coverage across the U.S. is at its lowest since August 2020 and likely to continue improving or end entirely across much of California. 

Mike Rotkin, former Santa Cruz Mayor and six-term councilmember has a more nuanced picture to present. He writes that even with all this rain in 2023, the county of Santa Cruz is still in a drought. And the Soquel Creek Water District agrees: One rain-soaked season does not end a drought – March 2023. Why are they saying this? How can it be? Consider what is relevant for Santa Cruz County is not the water supply, it’s the water storage and groundwater recharge. 

Presently the Loch Lomond reservoir with a primary function of water storage for Santa Cruz City residents and with a capacity of just under 3 billion gallons, is full. That gives the city about a year’s worth of storage, that’s it. Santa Cruz gets enough rain on average that it could store more of it for drought years. However, there is no additional storage capacity.

And with 80% of county water sourced in ground water aquifers, one might wonder if some of the water from the 13 atmospheric rivers in 2023 has made it into those aquifers. Again, there are nuances. There are extensive clay layers near the surface of much of the county’s land that do not support even moderately rapid recharging of the groundwater aquifers. So, a lot of that rain water has not made its way into the ground and has, instead, become runoff into rivers and the ocean. Sigh. We need some good ideas. 

What ARE we doing about our storage problem?  There are three big projects underway to increase water storage and supply: 

  • The Santa Cruz County Mid-County Groundwater Basin stretches for miles beneath the county and may be capable of holding billions of gallons of water. Two city wells can pump water in and out of the basin. More wells are in the works and various other sustainability plans are in force. 
  • The Pure Water Soquel Project is an effort to pump treated Santa Cruz wastewater to a new water purification plant in Live Oak and to coastal wells and the Mid-County Groundwater Basin. The recycled water is intended to prevent seawater from seeping into the aquifer and help the aquifer rebound from decades of over-pumping. Pipes for the project have been laid under Laurel Street, Broadway and Soquel Avenue in Santa Cruz, as well as on Main Street and parts of Soquel-Wharf Road in Soquel. 
  • Upgrades at Santa Cruz’s Graham Hill wastewater treatment facility planned for 2025 are expected to help the facility process and treat more of the cloudy water that comes from big storms.

There are a lot of Santa Cruz County citizens focused on creating healthy water and increased water storage for you and me. Understanding our water and the issues and how it relates to your real estate, I believe, is important. If you would like to discuss this further, feel free to reach out. I’d love to grab a coffee/tea and dive deeper. 

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