Decentralized Water Solutions

Transition Initiatives focus on re-localization, developing local self-reliance in meeting human needs. Large centralized systems often sacrifice resilience. Nature doesn’t value efficiency above all other values. Nature values diversity and redundancy --- two components of resilience, the ability to thrive amid changes.

Self-reliance may be better understood as choosing the appropriate scale. It would be absurd for each household to have to provide its own water. The Transition Santa Cruz mission statement speaks of strengthening our local interdependence, a way to improve community self-reliance. Strengthening our local interdependence would indicate that Soquel Creek Water District collaborate with the Pajaro Valley Water Management Association to resolve the critical overdraft of the Aromas Aquifer. Santa Cruz could collaborate with Soquel Creek Water District on a water swap. (See Water Swap: Making Use of Winter Flows)  County water policy documents have consistently called for such collaboration.1

The appropriate scale of certain strategies is quite decentralized, such as rainwater catchment and using graywater for irrigation. In this section we explore these strategies.

1 The San Lorenzo River Watershed Management Plan Update (2001) lists the following among “constraints to implementation” of the Plan: “A reluctance among water agencies to combine and coordinate efforts for management of  existing water supplies as well as new supply development.”

Articles Wanted on the Potential of Graywater and Rainwater Catchment  Please contact the editor

Composting Toilets & Food Security?

The history of the development of modern sewers is an example of society’s failure to deal with human “waste” on an appropriate scale. In an article titled, “Civilization and Sludge”, Abby Rockefeller describes how Western culture has historically missed the opportunity to make positive use of human excreta. “In Europe, there was no consistent perception of the agricultural value of these materials: not as in Asian cultures, where the husbanding of human excreta was (until very recently) unexceptional and routinized.”1

A recent article in Foreign Policy, "Peak Phosphorus", highlights one downside to sending our precious waste down the drain.
"Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. Initial analyses from scientists with the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative estimate that there will not be sufficient phosphorus supplies from mining to meet agricultural demand within 30 to 40 years. The geopolitical impacts of such disruptions will be severe, as an increasing number of states fail to provide their citizens with a sufficient food supply." 2

According to Dana Cordell, at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology, Sydney, “Urine is essentially sterile and contains plant-available nutrients (P,N,K) in the correct ratio. Combined with other organic sources like manure and food waste, the phosphorus value in urine and faeces can essentially replace the demand for phosphate rock.”3

Sewage management is the second most expensive public works project in America, after highways. And it enable the use of water on a historically unprecedented scale. Abby Rockefeller describes the impact of household water service in the 19th century.
The convenience of a constant water supply stimulated the adoption of residential water fixtures--baths and kitchen sinks as well as flush toilets--dramatically increasing the per capita use of water on average from three to five gallons per person per day to 30 and even 100 gallons per person per day.

The first major environmental impact of city household water service was an outbreak of cholera because mixing human waste with water overflowed local cesspools. In 1832, 20,000 people died of cholera in Paris. Authorities then turned to closed-pipe sewer systems. Deaths from cholera dropped, but typhoid increased because sewers drained into lakes and rivers and groundwater supplies.

With secondary sewage treatment and disinfection of drinking water, the pathogen problem in the US has been largely solved. What hasn’t been solved is the large amount of nitrates and phosphorus pouring into our fresh water systems, spiking growth of algae, turning fresh water bodies into dead zones. The irony is that we go to such trouble to fertilize our farmland with nitrates and phosphorus. Secondary treatment does not fully eliminate the toxics and heavy metals added to waste water from our industrial way of life. Tertiary treatment is very expensive and not widely adopted in the US. Nor is its water purification complete. Some toxics and nitrates persist.

The biggest public health problem associated with sewage treatment has turned out to be disposal of enormous quantities of sludge, the byproduct of treating wastewater. In 1990 the EPA said of sludge, “Typically, these constituents may include volatiles, organic solids, nutrients, disease-causing pathogenic organisms (e.g., bacteria, viruses, etc.), heavy metals and inorganic ions, and toxic organic chemicals from industrial wastes, household chemicals, and pesticides.” Burying sludge or letting it pool in lagoons can pollute groundwater. Spreading it on farmland puts a high level of heavy metals and toxins into the soil. Abby Rockefeller writes about the 1992 EPA policy reversal that allowed sludge to be applied to farmland:
"With the full fanfare and pomp of a formidable public relations campaign, sewage sludge was rechristened “beneficial biosolids.” Thus the EPA’s classification of sludge as a hazardous material was evaporated and then reconstituted…[as] “compost”."

The Santa Cruz wastewater treatment facility trucks its sludge to the Central Valley. The facility’s brochure states, “The solids are then used as soil amendment for nonfood crops in the Central Valley, composting, and/or top cover for valley landfills.” We have no assurance that the compost won’t end up on food crops.

Rockefeller asks "why decentralized solutions to water pollution were not developed and promoted over sewering, since, environmental considerations aside for the moment, they would have saved taxpayers immense amounts of money. The answer is in part the engineering/regulatory bias in favor of top-down, centrally controlled solutions. Health authorities are traditionally skeptical of the people’s ability to manage problems themselves. The regulatory and sanitary engineering community (very much one body, in general) also feels that troubles are safer in its hands."

Ironically, EPA regulations allow toxics to be spread on farmland, but health regulations don’t allow the use of composting toilets. Transition Santa Cruz respects the health concerns regarding composting toilets. In order to be used safely, they require more human care than a flush toilet. However, the alternative, putting our society’s long-term health and farmland fertility in the hands of complex centralized engineering projects, slowly poisons our farmland. We can imagine a future for our community in which composting toilets are legalized, with regular collection of the phosphorus-rich compost bricks and urine for use on local farms.
We trust the ability of citizens to learn the necessary skills to re-localize the composting of excreta. By so doing, we can attain food security. Oh, and reduce our water use as well.
1 Abby A. Rockefeller,  “Civilization & Sludge: Notes on the History of the Management of Human Excreta”, Current World Leaders, Volume 39, No. 6
2 Elser & White, “Peak Phosphorus”,  Foreign Policy, 4/20/2010


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Watershed Restoration for a Sustainable Water Supply

The San Lorenzo River watershed has suffered abuse since the Gold Rush. All but 4% of Old Growth redwood forest was cut to supply lumber for growing populations and fuel for lime kilns. Extensive logging in the post WW II era, carried out by heavy equipment, filled the San Lorenzo and its tributaries with sediment, fouling habitat for native salmon.

Today, recovery of native fish habitat is impaired by sediment that continues to wash into creeks during storms from roads in the forest. A Metro Santa Cruz article, “Roads to Ruin”, reported, “Santa Cruz County environmental planner Dave Hope … echoes an opinion widely held among geologists, biologists and even foresters that disastrous erosion problems stem from an estimated hundreds of miles of both new and abandoned logging roads and illegally constructed roads that snake throughout Santa Cruz County.”1

Sediment is also a problem for human users. Muddy runoff  following storms prevents the City of Santa Cruz from using the river as a water source. Because the City’s water treatment facility needs a water supply with low turbidity, when the water is muddy the City draws water from its reservoir, Loch Lomond.

The National Marine Fisheries Service guidelines for a healthy watershed limit roads to 3 miles of road for every square mile of forest. The Lompico and Lower Zayante sub-basins have 13 miles per sq mile. Ben Lomond sub-basin has 14 miles of road per square mile. And these statistics don’t count logging roads or roads that aren’t used for access.2 The San Lorenzo River and several tributaries continue to be listed as impaired for sediment, pathogens, and nitrates under the Clean Water Act. Runoff from septic tanks is a major factor causing the high levels of pathogens and nitrates.

The County cannot regulate timber harvesting because the state reserves that prerogative. But the County can inspect timber harvests to ensure compliance with Calif. Dept. of Forestry regulations. Timber harvesting in the watershed averaged 3137 acres per year in the 10 years from 1989-19983. The City of Santa Cruz owns forest land in the watersheds of Newell Creek and Zayante Creek. Until recently, the City logged this land. The City stopped logging its watershed property in response to concerns over sedimentation of creeks. Some groups are advocating further public purchase of riparian sections of the San Lorenzo watershed in order to prevent logging there.

Development has also impacted the watershed. The County’s San Lorenzo Watershed Management Plan (download pdf here) reports, “Growth also continued at a high rate in the City of Scotts  Valley, with an 80% increase in developed parcels from the 1980 to 2000. High rates of development in  the Scotts Valley area resulted in erosion of sandy areas, paving of groundwater recharge areas,  and increased pumping of groundwater.”4

Until recently the County removed fallen wood from the San Lorenzo and its tributaries. Wood in the streams is an important contributor to juvenile salmonid habitat, creating pools that provide refuge from predators and directing water flows that scour sediment from the stream bed. Now the County’s policy is to encourage in-stream wood, assisting property owners in assessing potential hazards of wood in the streams before a permit is granted to remove the wood. But education is needed in order for property owners to change old habits.

The fiscal crisis of the state has dimmed prospects for watershed restoration. The County report continues,
Stronger regulations were implemented to reduce erosion from new development, but many of the recommendations for funding and technical assistance to address existing chronic erosion  sources were not fully implemented due to significant funding cutbacks in local and federal  programs.   Stream sedimentation has not improved substantially since adoption of the 1979 Plan.  Chronic sediment contribution from public and private roads remains as a significant source of  stream degradation.5

Transition Santa Cruz notes that there exists a huge backlog of needed watershed restoration work at the same time that a large number of people in our community need employment. We want to inspire creative thinking to mobilize our community’s latent talents on our own behalf.

1 Kelly Luker, “Roads to Ruin”, Metro Santa Cruz, April 16, 1998
2 San Lorenzo Watershed Management Plan p 11
3 ibid p 12
4 ibid p 7
5 ibid, p 4

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Accomodating and Limiting Growth

Accomodating and Limiting Growth

Transition Santa Cruz wants to promote the understanding that every geographical area has a “carrying capacity”,  a limit to human consumption of natural resources. Consumption beyond that limit damages nature’s ability to support a human population. That is as true for consumption of water as it is for consumption of topsoil or forests.

Our water use is limited by our ability to harvest a portion of the rain that falls in our county without causing undue harm to the natural life in our watershed. We cannot grow our demand infinitely. We think you will agree that at some point, growth in water consumption needs to cease. As this report indicates, the evidence from hydro-geologists as well as fisheries biologists is that Santa Cruz and Mid-County have already passed a point of sustainable water use of aquifers and streams. The community therefore needs to take action to reduce its water use to sustainable levels. We can also investigate additional sustainable water sources. Even if the community decides to develop additional water sources, we should reduce our water consumption to sustainable levels pending that development.

Transition Santa Cruz invites your feedback on the following steps towards a community policy on sustainable water use and  growth.

1.    Achieving sustainable water use immediately:  The local water agencies, in conjunction with community groups, should launch a water conservation campaign with the goal of achieving:
•    Sustainable aquifer use (Soquel Creek Water District)
•    Optimal drought reserves in Loch Lomond Reservoir, and reduced water diversion from streams that support habitat for federally listed fish species.  (Santa Cruz)

2.    Policy on growth:  
•    Water-neutral development: Until such time as sustainable water use is attained, any new development in the water service area should be fully offset by permanent replacement of water-thirsty fixtures and landscapes in existing development.
•    Water credits for affordable housing: Transition Santa Cruz considers it a necessity for the Santa Cruz workforce to be able to live near their work. Otherwise greenhouse gas emissions from transportation will continue to rise, and low paid workers will see their income eroded by rising fuel prices. As the City and Soquel Creek District achieve reductions in water demand through conservation programs, water credits should  be set aside for affordable housing units. This policy is a state requirement in areas with limited water.
•    Criteria for new water supply projects: Any new water supply projects (e.g. making use of winter flows) must meet criteria for sustainability. Approval of any new supply projects needs to be conditioned on a commitment to restoring aquifers and healthy fish habitat and maintaining optimal reservoir levels. Any additional water available beyond those purposes would be available for growth.

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New Water Supply Strategy

Retired Water Manager Calls for Regional Swap

In an editorial in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on April 25, 2010, retired Santa Cruz Water Production Superintendent, James Bentley, wrote, “The City Council has been swayed into accepting a costly and environmentally unfriendly water solution when another viable and sustainable option exists which could minimize or eliminate the need for desalination.” The option Bentley refers to is the water swap with Soquel Creek District -- sending wet season water to Soquel in exchange for well water during drought.
Bentley participated in discussions of water supply options in the late 90’s that included this option detailed in the Alternative Water Supply Study (2000). That option was dismissed because the City was concerned that it would lose water diversion rights if it re-opened rights negotiations with the state. That concern is no longer an issue because the City has opened negotiations with National Marine Fisheries Service regarding fish habitat. Bentley calls for putting the water swap option back on the table. The following article includes a description of that option.

Making Use of Winter Flows

John Ricker, County Water Resources Division Director, is exploring two options that would make use of winter runoff to recharge aquifers and improve fish habitat in our streams. The first option is to divert water using existing City of Santa Cruz diversion and treatment facilities during high-flow periods in the San Lorenzo River to restore aquifer levels in Scotts Valley. That water would be used to reduce winter groundwater pumping in Scotts Valley and/or be infiltrated  into abandoned quarries to recharge the Santa Margarita Aquifer, where the water is 200 feet below its historic level due to pumping by Scotts Valley. This recharge and in-lieu recharge would increase both groundwater storage and dry season base flow in the San Lorenzo River, improving fish habitat. Another approach in the same area would restore stormwater infiltration in developed, impervious areas of Scotts Valley to increase groundwater storage and reduce storm runoff.

The second option Ricker is exploring is for City of Santa Cruz to send treated surface water during high-flow periods to Soquel Creek Water District. During those periods the District could reduce its pumping of groundwater, thereby allowing the aquifer to recover. This option was considered in a study commissioned by the Santa Cruz Water Department published in 2000.1 That study included the possibility that in return for getting water from Santa Cruz during wet periods, Soquel Creek District would deliver well water to Santa Cruz during droughts. According to the study, “Limited use of the wells by the Soquel Creek Water District during winter periods – when supply could be augmented by the City – should reduce the stress on the aquifer and enhance natural recharge.”
Both options would require revision of the City’s water rights to divert water from the San Lorenzo River and possibly the North Coast Streams. Some of those rights date back to pre-1914, when the State didn’t require bypass flows to preserve fish habitat. Consequently, the City has a right to take unlimited water from the North Coast Streams. Its water rights to the San Lorenzo River at the Ocean St. Extension diversion have no minimum bypass flow requirements. Water rights for the Felton Diversion for diversion of high winter flows include minimum bypass requirements, but these may not be adequate, given the increased concern and greater understanding of fish flow requirements. In 2000, the Water Department did not pursue the option of a regional water swap with Soquel Creek District because of a concern that re-opening water rights would allow the State to require significant reductions in summer water diversions. According to Bill Kocher, Santa Cruz Water Department Director, this concern is no longer an issue, since the City has since entered into a process of developing a Habitat Conservation Plan that will modify its water rights to surface streams. 

Despite the fact that the Habitat concerns are no longer at issue, Santa Cruz Water Department has not responded favorably to our request that this option be re-considered. According to Bill Kocher there option is not worth pursuing because the Purisima Aquifer is in overdraft and therefore Soquel Creek District would not be able to export water to Santa Cruz during a drought. Our response is that the agreement between Soquel District and Santa Cruz should include a provision that Soquel would match Santa Cruz’s curtailment during drought years. Then there would certainly be water available to deliver to Santa Cruz. For example, in a drought where Santa Cruz and Soquel are curtailing water use by 20%, Soquel could send 20% of its normal season well water to Santa Cruz. That’s the minimum Santa Cruz would receive. Once the aquifer reaches a level safe from salt-water intrusion, the potential to export water to Santa Cruz could be significantly higher.