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Pajaro Valley grapples with tough water choices...

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel
10/7/2011

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_19067020

Pajaro Valley grapples with tough water choices; Committee rejects pipeline, favors College Lake projects

WATSONVILLE - A pipeline to tap into Central Valley water is off the table.

But a Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency committee seeking solutions to Pajaro Valley's long-standing groundwater problems hasn't ruled out building a dam in North Monterey County or pumping treated wastewater into the aquifer along the coast.

The committee is beginning to whittle ideas before making final recommendations aimed at ensuring sufficient water supplies while halting seawater intrusion at the coast.

The challenge, said committee chairman Dave Cavanaugh, is to find agreement on projects that, if not liked, are at least not hated.

"It's hard work," Cavanaugh said, "and it gets more difficult as we come close to a final decision."

During the past five years, the Pajaro Valley has pumped an average of 55,000 acre feet of water from the ground annually, about 85 percent for irrigation.

The agency estimates it needs to cut back about 12,000 acre feet to bring the groundwater basin into balance, though the figure depends on where the savings come from. Less pumping at the coast, for example, has a more direct impact on salt water contamination than cutting back on pumping would have inland.

An acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons, or about half the amount needed to produce an acre of strawberries.

The agency is under increasing pressure to come up with a basin management plan that will end the overdraft. Most recently, staff at the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board sent a stern letter warning of possible state action if the local community didn't come up with a solution.

Closer to home, the agency's main funding source, a pumping fee of $162 to $195 per acre foot of water, is due to sunset in 2015, and officials want to have a project and spending plan in place before they have to return to voters to ask for an extension.

But at a meeting Thursday, the difficultly of the task was apparent.

The committee eliminated more than half the 41 projects proposed during the past several months to concentrate study on those it felt most feasible.

Perhaps most popular were several proposals to use College Lake, a seasonal body of water east of Watsonville, as a reservoir for up to 2,000 acre feet of water, which could be expanded to up to 5,600 acre feet if other sources such as Pinto Lake, Corralitos Creek and Watsonville Slough were added. Capital and operations costs, estimated on an annualized basis, ranged from $2 million to $9 million.

In comparison, a pipeline to import 11,900 acre feet was estimated at $17.6 million. But that project was rejected as too politically unsavory. Plans to build a pipeline in the past created deep and bitter divisions in the valley.

Committee member and grower Dave Kegebein said the choices were stark.

"It comes down to very expensive projects or giving up some of your land," he said.

The committee also rejected a proposal to fallow 8,000 acres of coastal land, though it left open the possibility of fallowing 10 percent of all farmland in the valley.

Cavanaugh said conservation measures, which have yet to be fully studied, will play an important role in the solution. He offered his own experience of installing "state of the art" irrigation equipment at his nursery and cutting water use 20 percent.

The agency is scheduled to adopt a management plan in mid-2012.

The committee will continue its discussion on the project list from 2-4 p.m. Oct. 20 at the U.C. Cooperative Extension, 1432 Freedom Blvd. For information, visit www.pvwma.dst.ca.us.

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