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May 8, 2021

City of Santa Cruz petitions to expand rights to San Lorenzo River water

The Santa Cruz City Water Department (SCWD) is seeking to expand its rights to store, distribute and use the water it diverts from the San Lorenzo River. SCWD currently has exclusive rights to the river’s water, whereas the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) has a complementary set of water rights for several tributaries that flow into the river.

The California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board), which oversees water rights issues in the state, announced on Feb. 10, that it had received SCWD’s five petitions. SLVWD has submitted a protest objecting to portions of these proposals.

SCWD’s request

SCWD is allowed to divert up to 3,000 acre feet of water per year from the river at the Felton Diversion Facility to storage at Loch Lomond Reservoir. Although the permitted amount of diverted water would not change (SCWD currently does not use all of its permitted allotment), the petitions would modify where and when diversion is allowed and where and how it can be used. The proposed changes include:

  • Permit diversion at the Tait Diversion Dam in Santa Cruz as well as at the Felton Facility, and allow underground storage in the Tait and Beltz wells located in the city of Santa Cruz
  • Allow increased water use for industry, recreation, fire protection and protection of water quality
  • Permit water shipments beyond SCWD’s current service area, to include Soquel Creek Water District, Scotts Valley Water District (SVWD), SLVWD, the Central Water District and Santa Margarita Groundwater Basins
  • Increase the required minimum river flow below the Felton Diversion Facility during certain months of the year 
  • Prohibit delivery of river water to any other water supplier during drought conditions 

The petitions are part of SCWD’s long-term regional water planning process to address future droughts and climate change issues while protecting the river’s watershed and fisheries.  SCWD claims it will not divert additional water from the river, despite the fact that it plans to substantially increase water storage and ship water outside its boundaries.

SLVWD’s Protest

SLVWD has submitted a protest addressing two of the requested changes. The proposed increased flow requirements below Felton may compromise its own upcoming proposal to change its water rights for Fall Creek as part of a plan to coordinate water supplies across the District. SLVWD has requested that the State delay consideration so that the two districts’ proposals can be considered together. SLVWD also has a contractual right, not yet exercised, to use 310 acre feet of the Loch Lomond Reservoir water annually, so it wants assurances that it will not lose this right during drought conditions.

The Role of the Santa Margarita Groundwater Agency (SMGWA)

SMGWA is a state-mandated joint powers agency charged with developing a plan to recharge and sustain the Santa Margarita aquifers. This multi-jurisdictional effort includes SLVWD, SVWD, and Santa Cruz County as member agencies, with the city of Santa Cruz also occupying a seat on its Board of Directors. SCWD nevertheless submitted its water rights petitions as a separate action in the midst of SMGWA’s collaborative regional planning process even though the San Lorenzo River and its tributaries are inextricably linked to the aquifers.

Next steps

The State Board is currently considering the petitions and SLVWD’s protest, a process that also includes an Environmental Impact Statement. This will provide interested parties more detailed information on the potential impacts of the proposed changes on the watershed and fisheries, and an opportunity to voice any objections or concerns. SMGWA deliberations also provide a forum to address the petitions’ impacts on regional water planning. 

Jim Mosher and Lee Summers are members of the Leadership Group of Friends of San Lorenzo Valley Water, a group of local residents working to ensure clean and healthy water for all who live in the SLV: friendsofsanlorenzovalleywater.org/.