Our undervalued natural resource

By Betsy Herbert

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted: 04/18/13, 12:00 AM PDT

We seem to be deluged with news lately about the dwindling water supply here in Santa Cruz County. Most has centered on ways to address the problem, especially the controversial proposed desalination plant vs. the need for more conservation. What's not at issue is that increasing water shortages are due to increased demand, longer dry spells, and the need to leave more water in the streams for native fish, especially endangered coho salmon.

What often seems left out of the conversation is just how precious our existing water supply is. I first learned, sometime in the mid-1990s, that water in Santa Cruz County is supplied entirely by our local aquifers and streams. Dr. Bob Curry, then a professor of geomorphology at UC Santa Cruz, explained how we don't get water piped in from Hetch Hetchy and we don't have a connection to the California Aqueduct or any other outside water source. Oh, and water does not seep down to the central coast from the Sierra!

Our water supply comes entirely from rain that falls in local watersheds, flows out to streams and recharges aquifers. Santa Cruz is one of the only counties in California that can make that claim.

As a forest-protection advocate, I was intrigued by Dr. Curry's explanation of how the heavily forested slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains play an integral role in supplying our water all year long. During the rainy season, the dense forest canopy buffers the mountain slopes from intense rainfall. The thick duff on the forest floor -- formed over hundreds of years of falling leaf litter -- captures much of that rainfall, filters it, and allows it to soak deeply into the soil. At the end of the rainy season, those water-laden forest soils continue to release cool, clear, stored water into local streams, even during the driest times of the year. What an amazing natural water storage system these forested watersheds are!

Santa Cruz County is blessed with a natural topography and rich native forest cover that contribute to a year-round water supply. Thus, protecting forested watersheds is the first critical step in ensuring our high-quality local water. A second critical step in the process is understanding and valuing the services provided by public water utilities. Water from creeks and streams must be filtered and treated so that tap water meets the high federal standards required by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and water must be delivered on demand.

Treatment plants require sophisticated equipment, computer monitoring, and adequately trained personnel. Water delivery in a mountainous area is challenging. Water is heavy and moving it requires lots of energy. Pumping from aquifers deep underground and distributing water to customers is a major operating cost. Maintaining and protecting watershed lands takes planning and on-the-ground oversight. Finally, water infrastructure -- such as aging water mains, treatment plants, and pump stations -- needs to be periodically replaced.

Despite increasing costs and a desperate need nationwide to replace water infrastructure, high-quality tap water remains ridiculously low-priced compared to what consumers are willing to pay for bottled water, which is of no better quality. And the bottled water industry is booming.

In California, $1.60 will buy you 1,000 gallons of tap water, while you'll pay $900 for the same amount of bottled water, not including the huge environmental costs of plastic bottles.

Jim Rapoza, member of San Lorenzo Valley Water District board, asks a good question: "Wouldn't consumers be better off kicking the bottled water habit and investing all that money in our public water supply systems?"