Long-term planning for water supply

This "Looking Forward" op-ed piece by Ken Hough was published in the Santa Maria Times on July 10, 2015: http://santamariatimes.com/news/opinion/editorial/commentary/looking-forward/long-term-planning-for-water-supply/article_f7709fa6-2db6-51ce-916e-871b4f91ea8c.html

Santa Maria, Orcutt, Nipomo, Oceano, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach all depend on the Santa Maria Valley groundwater basin for municipal water supplies.

In spite of this common water source, there is no single authority to manage the basin. Instead, the basin is divided into three management areas — Santa Maria Valley, Nipomo Mesa and Northern Cities.

According to the Nipomo Community Services District, “Water use has been climbing for decades, exceeding the sustainable supply. As a result of increasing use and drought, groundwater levels are in severe condition. As groundwater levels fall below sea level, it threatens seawater intrusion, potentially contaminating the groundwater with salt.”

The Northern Cities Management Area gets a majority of its water from Lopez Lake, but the groundwater levels are dropping, especially near the coast. The annual report on groundwater conditions in that area last April also expressed concern about current conditions creating “... an environment for increased risk of sea water intrusion.”

A rather different conclusion is reached in the annual report dated last April 15, prepared for the Santa Maria Valley Management Area, namely that “... there is no severe water shortage in the SMVMA as of 2014.”

To be fair, this quote relates specifically to the stipulation provisions in the November 2012 California Court of Appeals decision determining water rights for the water purveyors in the SMVMA. Those stipulations state groundwater declines caused by drought cannot be deemed as creating a severe water shortage.

It must have made sense to the court, but to this layperson it makes no sense that the recent gradual decline in groundwater levels combined with extended drought conditions are not cause for alarm. I attended a meeting where the report was presented to the public. The oft-repeated message there was that since our groundwater levels are not quite as low as they have ever been, and since periods of rain and groundwater

recovery have always followed the lows, there is no cause for alarm.

As the Times’ editorial of June 14 pointed out, “... reputable climate scientists are expressing misgivings about applying historic parameters to a global climate that is clearly in an unusual transition phase.”

We should be planning for the possibility of this drought continuing for years, and that our groundwater levels could sink far below historic lows.

Greywater — water from sinks, showers and washers, but not toilets — has great potential to reduce the reliance of municipal water systems on groundwater and State Water Project water, and should be part of that planning. Cities and water purveyors throughout the basin should evaluate the potential for greywater use, adopt policies encouraging its use, and provide incentives for homeowners and businesses to install systems to use their greywater on site. Greywater can especially be used for flushing toilets and irrigating gardens.

In its June 13 editorial, the Times suggested making a commitment to desalinating ocean water. Santa Barbara is reactivating its desal plant at great expense, but that city’s water woes are far worse than ours. Desal is energy-intensive and has aquatic environmental issues. It should be viewed as a last resort. It should also run on solar and wind power.

A front-page story in the Times on June 29 noted that five cities in Santa Barbara County offer lawn rebate, or cash-for-grass programs. Santa Maria should offer this as well.

Long-term planning for water supplies will continue to be necessary beyond what was called for by the court. Local water purveyors and city leaders need to work more with the public to determine the best options.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.