Future development in Santa Cruz County likely to face greater scrutinyKurtis Alexander, Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ -- For almost a year, a little-known group of policymakers has been working to strengthen the protection of local water supplies.
The concern of the panel, commissioned by the obscure but powerful Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission, is dwindling aquifers in South County and inadequate water flow in the rivers and streams to the north.
Now, the so-called Water Policy Committee has arrived at a policy recommendation that would require major development decisions across the county to be made with the limited water supplies in mind -- a change that could hamper expansion plans at UC Santa Cruz and the city of Watsonville.
Specifically, the recent proposal calls for LAFCO, which has say over new water connections and hence over new projects, to ensure water supplies aren't compromised when development proceeds.
While LAFCO has long taken water impacts into consideration, the new policy sets a standard.
"As we make decisions, the impact on the water supply has become an important question to answer," said county Supervisor John Leopold, who sat on the water committee. "We're starting to see the finite supply of our water here."
As expected, planners at UC Santa Cruz and Watsonville, with their eyes on expansion, are closely watching the new proposal and how much additional scrutiny it might bring.
"We want to make sure any new guidelines allow for the regulation of water but not necessarily or arbitrarily restrict it," said David Koch, director of public works and utilities in Watsonville.
The city has been looking to annex unincorporated lands along Buena Vista Drive for mostly residential development, a plan that would need the approval of LAFCO.
Meanwhile, LAFCO is expected to rule this year on whether the city of Santa Cruz can extend water service to the university. UC Santa Cruz needs the service to expand its campus by more than 300 acres and accommodate nearly 4,500 more students.
As the proposed LAFCO policy reads, the regulatory agency needs to ensure water supplies are "adequate, reliable and sustainable" when making decisions about development. There are exceptions.
UC Santa Cruz officials declined to comment on the proposal.
LAFCO is currently taking public comment on the new policy and a public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 2.
John Ricker, the county's director of water resources, says the proposal is sure to raise the level of awareness about water when it comes to land-use. But the recommendations are not without providing LAFCO latitude in its decision-making, he says.
"They're written in a way that's not overly specific so it gives them some room to evaluate and consider the issues without being locked in," Ricker said. "Still, the broad criteria is pretty strong in terms of not doing harm to water supplies."
Gary Patton, a local land-use attorney and environmentalist, praised the proposed policy.
"It is obvious to me, at least, that water has to be at the top of the list of what LAFCO thinks about now," he said.