Growth of people, fish big factors: Habitat protection, planning for population increase color desalination debate
SANTA CRUZ — The city predicts the number of people living within its water service area could rise 10 percent by 2030 from levels seen in 2010, a quarter of which could come from increased enrollment at UC Santa Cruz.
Although university growth plans aren’t known beyond the next eight years, another population will have a far greater impact on how much water is available much sooner than that.
State and federal regulators want the city to reduce diversions on the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams — where it gets about 85 percent of its water — to improve spawning and raising habitat for the endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries Service, the population of California Central Coast coho was estimated at 6,000 spawning adults when listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1996. The population was estimated at 500 in 2010, a year during which only one or two male coho was observed in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ streams, the agency reports. No juvenile coho have been observed in the river since 2005, though there are runs in Scotts and San Vicente creeks on the North Coast.
The federal agency’s current demand for the city to leave 80 percent of natural flow in the river and streams has led to a shift in the public pitch for a controversial desalination plant — one that places fish protection on par with safeguarding against drought. The city says the new flow standard is achievable in normal and wet years but not in dry years without a new water supply.
“I had no idea at the start that it would end up driving this thing,” water director Bill Kocher said of negotiations with fish regulators that began 12 years ago. “When you sit down and look at whatever we have accomplished with water — all the conservation we have achieved has been dedicated to fish. Now we have to decide what do we want to do (for people).”
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