Private well owners made their interests clear at a “stakeholders” meeting for the Santa Margarita Groundwater Agency.  In a standing-room only meeting on May 31, nearly all of the 60 people at the meeting raised their hands when asked if they were representing private well owners.  

Nick Vrolyk, private well owner representative on the board of this new groundwater planning agency, said that because most private wells are on parcels exceeding one acre, those acres add more water to the aquifer through rain water re-charge than is normally pumped out.

“We need to stand our ground, and make sure we hold a hard line at zero fees through this process,” Vrolyk said to a receptive audience. But Vrolyk also said good will and cooperation will be necessary for private well owners to be effective stakeholders in the work of this new planning agency.

The Santa Margarita Groundwater Agency (SMGA) is a relatively new, state-mandated planning agency with boundaries drawn by the natural water basin underneath it- with no respect for city limit lines or water district boundaries.  The Santa Margarita basin supplies two water districts; Scotts Valley Water District and San Lorenzo Valley Water District, as well as the Mount Hermon water system in Felton, plus about 1,100 privately owned wells.  

The SMGA is mandated to develop and enforce a plan that will bring water levels in the basin back up, and then eventually achieve sustainability between water pumped out and groundwater re-charge from rainfall.  The director of Santa Cruz County’s Water Resources Division, John Ricker, made it clear that if the new SMGA does not fulfill its responsibilities under the law, “The state will come in and do it for us, and I’ll tell you now, if you are worried about fees and charges, you don’t want that to happen.”  

Two of the seats on the 11-member board of directors of SMGA, roughly equivalent to the estimated 10 percent total “draw” of private wells from the aquifer, are designated for private well owners. These representatives were quite clear at the stakeholders meeting about their goals in the management of the new agency: no mandated metering and no new fees or taxes.

The Santa Margarita Groundwater Basin is shaped like a huge triangle with two sides reaching up the sides of San Lorenzo Valley to a sharp point in Boulder Creek that broadens out with the San Lorenzo Valley to include all of Scotts Valley at its base. 

The SVWD is 100 percent dependent on groundwater pumped from the basin, with no surface water resources. Depending on the year and the amount of rainfall, the SLVWD’s supply is roughly 50 percent groundwater pumped from wells and 50 percent surface water captured from streams and creeks before reaching the San Lorenzo River, according to Jen Michelsen, Environmental Program Coordinator for the SLVWD.  

According to information from the SMGWA, “the basin is now in a state of overdraft due to decades of overpumping- groundwater levels are now approximately 200 feet below their natural levels. While these levels are no longer decreasing, recovery is still a long way out.”

Sierra Ryan, Water Resources Planner for the Environmental Health Division of the county, said private well owners are not only major stakeholders, but it is “definitely in their interest to be included in the process of developing the Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the Santa Margarita basin,” as well as the plan’s eventual implementation, which the agency is mandated by the state to complete and enforce.

In what has been called the most significant water initiative in California in half a century, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, when the drought was having serious effects on agriculture in the Central Valley. The new law required those ground water basins considered over drafted, including Monterey, Pajaro and the Santa Margarita basin, to form cross-jurisdictional management agencies to study how sustainability between supply and demand is to be achieved, and then implement the necessary measures to sustain this balance.

The key mission of the Santa Margarita Groundwater Agency is to complete a Groundwater Sustainability Plan by 2020, and then implement the plan over the next 20 years to 2040- at which point the aquifer must be shown have reached “sustainability” between what is pumped out and what is re-charged by rain.

The cost of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan is estimated at roughly $2 million, according to Sierra Ryan, but “the good news is” the State Department of Water Resources recently announced the award a grant in the amount of $1 million for the study. Future SMGA board meetings, beginning in June, will consider different scenarios for funding the balance of the cost of the study.

The SMGA was established through a joint powers agreement between the Scotts Valley Water District, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District and the County of Santa Cruz. While the County Water Resources Division has studied the ground water resources for decades, Ryan said that while the model used to estimate ground water supply has improved over time, it is currently being evaluated in light of the new requirements of the state law.   

“The more data points we have for this revised model the better,” Ryan said. Which is why the SMGA would like to have as much cooperation from private well owners as possible to measure ground water levels, Ryan explained.  “We’re offering no cost soundings of water depths in wells, but only if we are invited by the well owner,” Ryan said.   

Alarmed by reports of increasing seawater intrusion into the ground water basins of the Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley, in which expensive fixes have already been tried and fees charged to private well owners for agriculture uses have increased, private well owners in the northern part of Santa Cruz County seem to be bracing themselves to resist mandatory metering and fees charged for groundwater management. 

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