Report paints brighter picture for Soquel Creek water

District proceeding with plans for supply, conservation
By Jason Hoppin


SOQUEL >> An outside consultant’s report is raising questions about the extent of overdraft in the Soquel Creek Water District, suggesting the agency’s water problem may not be as bad as advertised.

Triggered by the board’s recent declaration of a groundwater emergency, a peer review shows the district has been underestimating how much water can be sustainably pumped from Soquel Creek’s groundwater basin. The analysis raises questions about how far the district needs to go to protect the basin, and how much of the burden Aptos and Soquel-area homeowners should shoulder.

“We need to spend some time and try to get some clarification on some of this, because the implication was that we may not have to have as big of a supplemental supply as we think we do,” Soquel Creek General Manager Kim Adamson said. “There’s nothing in there that makes us think that we don’t need to have a supplemental supply, or that we aren’t overdrafted. But by how much or how long it will take to recover is the part that we don’t quite know.”

The issue has significant consequences: The district is exploring whether to purchase water from a future desalination plant (or even build a small one itself). It recently approved a long-term conservation plan and nearly passed a de facto building moratorium, all based on the notion there is not enough water to go around.

Adamson said it’s important the district learn more about its water situation.

“That’s all tied to our customers’ dollars, and so we want to be careful and make sure we’re making the right decisions for the right problem, and that we’re not spending money we don’t have to,” Adamson said.

For years, the district has been using groundwater assumptions that pumping would have to be reduced by 1,500 acre feet a year over 20 years to bring the basin back to normal and keep seawater out of the aquifers.

But the new analysis showed the basin’s groundwater deficit is not 21,000 acre feet, but 5,000 — a level where the overtaxed basin could be restored by reducing pumping just 250 acre feet a year.

The deficit was later revised upward slightly, but the difference highlights the difficulty in getting a true picture of a precious but hidden resource. The two markedly different figures are due to a slightly higher estimate for how much can by responsibly pumped, which has shifted the picture when it comes to the district’s historic overdrafts.

“There’s a very large cumulative effect of a very little difference in pumping,” Adamson said.

How the Soquel Creek board handles the water situation is likely to draw scrutiny from not just the public, but a crowded, dozen-strong field of candidates for the board itself. So far, the board has not altered course on a far-reaching conservation program nor halted discussion on tapping into alternative water supplies.

Soquel Creek Vice President Bruce Daniels conceded the analysis could alter the response to the district’s water problem, but said it doesn’t change the fact that one is needed. The district should see how the basin responds after it begins leaving more water in the ground, he said.

“Theory is great. But reality always wins,” Daniels said. “I think we know enough to know that we need to make some changes, which we are already doing.”

The peer review was required as part of the declaration of a groundwater emergency, which the board enacted in June. Alameda-based Todd Engineers’ report supported the declaration — it found the basin in overdraft, though by less than previously thought.


The water debate at Soquel Creek has been roiling for months, with some homeowners objecting to aspects of the district’s plans. The moratorium vote also raised an outcry, with several large projects — including the Aptos Village plan — on the horizon. The groundwater emergency vote itself came despite the district’s own lawyer questioning whether the water situation was impacting community health and safety, a prerequisite for declaring an emergency.

Doug Deaver, a former facilities manager at Cabrillo College — which has wells that share an aquifer with Soquel Creek — is one of the new board candidates. He pointed out that none of the other water users sharing Soquel Creek’s groundwater basin — from private well owners to the Central Water District to the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency — have declared an emergency.

“If this is endangering health and safety, how come it was only endangering health and safety for 50 percent of the users?” Deaver said.

Instead, Deaver alleged the board did it for land-use reasons — to bring new construction to a halt.

“The only reason they went through the process was to declare a moratorium,” Deaver said.

This week, the county declined to join the declaration of groundwater emergency, finding no reason to stop new well permits.

“That’s just their opinion. It doesn’t change one iota about the situation under the ground. The (Board of) Supervisors have not shown they’re willing to do much,” said Daniels, one the of the district’s staunchest proponents of water cutbacks and of the once-proposed moratorium.

The difference between the two reports is not a scientific — Todd Engineers took no new measurements, and even praised the work of Oakland-based HydroMetrics Water Resources, which employs Soquel Creek’s former general manager, Laura Brown.

Instead, the discrepancy is one of interpretation, partly due to decisions by the Soquel Creek board that made the groundwater situation appear worse, including ruling out future groundwater recharge from septic systems throughout parts of the basin.

That was apparently done in the hope that the county would one day hook up residents to sewer systems, including those living south of Seascape. Soquel Creek already has lost one well in that region to nitrate contamination from septic runoff, but the county has strict rules on rural development, and a sewer extension was never likely in the cards.

Soquel Creek’s board will discuss the groundwater situation further at a meeting in September. It will meet next week to whittle down options for future new water supplies.

There are also signs of division between the board and staff, including whether the groundwater emergency was warranted. The day after that vote, the board held a special employee review of Adamson, the district general manager.

Adamson declined to comment. Daniels, who made the motion to hold the urgent review, did not outline his reasons.

“Our general manager had been here for quite awhile, and it’s just time, I thought to give some feedback,” Daniels said.

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