How CA coastal communities are working to conserve water, combat saltwater intrusion amid drought

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Friday, May 20, 2022
Coastal communities upgrade water systems in face of drought
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Amid California's drought, Santa Cruz County communities that heavily rely on groundwater are working overtime to conserve.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KGO) -- For Executive Pastor Mark Spurlock, expanding classroom space at the Twin Lakes Christian School in Aptos has been addition by subtraction. At least when it comes to saving water.

Following development offset rules outlined by the Soquel Creek Water District, the school engineered water-saving solutions to offset the new space they were building including replacing lawn areas with a drought-friendly plaza that catches and diverts water routed from nearby rooftops.

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"Underneath it is actually a water retention basin that takes stormwater and puts it back into the ground. And we also replaced every plumbing fixture on the campus with more high-efficiency fixtures. And so the combination of all of those measures amounted to 2 million gallons of water that would have otherwise gone down the drain," Spurlock said.

That same water offset program also allowed the broader Santa Cruz area to continue building much-needed housing even with drought concerns. And in spite of the fact that the area relies entirely on the local groundwater basin for its water supply. But as drought conditions worsened Soquel water has found itself facing a new challenge. This one from offshore.

"This shows where seawater intrusion is down beneath the ocean in our aquifers," explains district general manager Ron Duncan, pointing to a color-coded map.

To better understand seawater intrusion, Duncan says the layman can think of the Santa Cruz area's aquifer as a giant bathtub with mountain watershed on one side, and ocean on the other.

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"So as we pump water out, it sucks it in. And matter of fact, the majority of the populated coastal regions of the world have seawater intrusion," he says.

To combat the saltwater, and balance out the tub, the district recently broke ground on the Chanticleer water purification plant. The plant will purify a percentage of the area's wastewater that would typically be discharged into the ocean. Instead, it will be piped to a system of groundwater wells to recharge the aquifer, helping push back the salt water and helping secure the area's drinking water supply. Duncan sees it as the beginning of a new era of water recycling.

"I think water will be that way in 20 years, we won't be discharging to the ocean the way we are now," Duncan believes.

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The system is expected to be up and running later next year. And coming full circle, one of the wells will be recharging groundwater at a site that stretches underneath Twin Lakes Christian school. Executive Pastor Mark Spurlock says the school will be able to divert a portion to irrigate their sports field, taking the school's water conservation model to the next level.

"We, as a church, want to promote things that lead to flourishing in our community. And water is a real issue. Seawater intrusion is a real issue with the only aquifers that we have or are going to have. And so to have smarter ways of dealing with water so that it can we can have a sustainable water supply is something that we're enthusiastic about being a part of," he says.

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