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As We See It: Water crisis moves downstream

The Soquel Creek Water District board of directors' decision Tuesday night to increase water rates next year by 5 percent is not the entire story.

Nor is it that directors backed off from a larger, 9 percent, increase -- after hearing from many customers that the timing was really bad, considering the recession and people's inability to cope with ever-spiraling living costs.

Nor is the story that the district will return late next year with possibly bigger rate hikes -- Soquel Creek hasn't ruled out similar 9 percent hikes for 2011 and again for 2012.

Behind the debate over increases, however, is a very real water crisis that has been moving down the pipeline for years, and eventually will have to be diverted.

The Soquel Creek district has some 14,500 Mid-County hookups, serving nearly 50,000 people. Water for these customers comes mainly from wells, unlike the Santa Cruz Water Department, which draws mostly from rainfall-generated surface water.

It's no secret that Santa Cruz County has suffered from several years of below-normal rainfall, which also replenishes underground aquifers. In addition, the county has grown, while water storage has not, thus drawing down existing supplies.

Local water districts have been aggressive in advocating conservation by customers, but such measures have probably gone about as far as possible in saving water.

The Soquel Creek district is faced with a number of needs -- including developing
new wells and improving pumping, distribution and water mains, as well as looking at other sources of increased supply. All these cost money.

In addition, the Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water districts are collaborating on plans for an expensive and environmentally sensitive desalination project; Soquel Creek is paying $2.5 million of its portion of the desal study.

Does any of this mean that customers can afford a big rate increase? No. That's why people came out Tuesday night at the board meeting to protest the planned increase.

District officials say they will have to find ways to make budget cuts, or put off projects, with the smaller rate increase. They also say they will have to borrow money to fund needed projects.
Customers now will see a relatively modest rate hike, but shouldn't be lulled into thinking that everything's OK with water in Santa Cruz County.

It isn't -- and this story isn't over yet.
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