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After some concern from San Lorenzo Valley Water District ratepayers about a potential merger with Scotts Valley Water District, the San Lorenzo Valley board delayed a decision Feb. 4 on whether to pursue it.
Such a merger would take more than a year, require several public workshops and the approval of the Local Agency Formation Commission, leaders from the districts have said.
Scotts Valley Water District’s directors will meet Thursday, Feb. 11 to discuss whether to explore a merger. Piret Harmon, general manager of the Scotts Valley Water District, said this week that she was not sure whether the Scotts Valley board will decide at Thursday’s meeting whether to continue merger talks.
“I think we owe it to our customers to look for efficiencies,” Harmon said in an interview. Harmon and Rick Rogers, manager of San Lorenzo Valley Water District, first discussed the idea of the merger in 2020 as a way to be more cost efficient, Harmon said.
Both districts draw water from aquifers in the Santa Margarita Groundwater Basin and can share water during emergencies, district leaders have said. The two districts have collaborated on a joint urban water plan, a move Harmon estimates reduced the costs of that plan to both districts by 20%. The two districts, along with the county, have also worked together on a groundwater management plan since 2017.
Harmon said the frequent collaboration led her to wonder whether combining the resources of the two agencies could make their operations more cost efficient. “Small agencies in general tend to be more expensive per unit because there’s no economy of scale,” Harmon said.
Scotts Valley Water District includes roughly 4,000 connections across 6 square miles. It includes most of the city of Scotts Valley and part of the unincorporated area north of the city, the district wrote in a statement.
San Lorenzo Valley Water started in 1941 and provides water across about 60 square miles and 190 miles of pipeline. In 2017, San Lorenzo Valley Water merged with Lompico County Water District and absorbed Lompico’s roughly 500 customers. San Lorenzo Valley Water now has about 8,000 water hookups.
“The district relies on both surface water and groundwater resources, including nine currently active stream diversions, one groundwater spring, and eight active groundwater wells,” San Lorenzo Valley Water District leaders wrote in a statement.
Last week, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District meeting included a presentation from the Local Agency Formation Commission on the steps needed to join the two districts. LAFCO oversees the formation of local utility districts. Nearly 100 people attended the online meeting, said San Lorenzo Valley Water Board President Gail Mahood.
A water district merger would require San Lorenzo Valley Water and Scotts Valley Water to commission a detailed study on the possible effects of such a move, said James Furtado, a LAFCO representative. There would be several public workshops to collect public feedback, then an application would be submitted to LAFCO.
If all steps are completed and both water district boards proceed with a merger, all registered voters and landowners within the districts can protest the process with a petition. If more than 25% of either registered voters or landowners petition against the merger, the district would hold a special election to determine the outcome, LAFCO rules state. If more than 50% of voters or landowners sign a petition against it, the process would be stopped, Furtado said.
At Thursday’s board meeting, many San Lorenzo Valley residents raised concerns about losing local control over water.
Though San Lorenzo Valley Water District has roughly twice as many water hookups as Scotts Valley Water District, some residents expressed concerns that as a more urban community, Scotts Valley would grow more. “These two communities are very different,” said San Lorenzo Valley resident and former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Joe Cucchiara. “This is the dumbest idea since the pet rock.”
Other residents questioned the impact of the possible merger on water rates and district governance. Specifics of the plan, including the impact on water rates, could only be determined if the board agrees to explore the idea, said Rogers, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District manager.
Some ratepayers already started organizing against the merger. After a press release about the possible consolidation made the rounds on social media two days before Thursday’s meeting, some San Lorenzo Valley residents began circulating an online petition that opposed it. More than 1,000 people signed it by Friday.
The petition has been promoted by “Friends of the San Lorenzo Watershed,” a group unaffiliated with the local organization Friends of San Lorenzo Valley Water. The latter group has not yet taken a position on the possible merger.
Piret Harmon, general manager of the Scotts Valley Water District, said she believed the social media pushback is based on misconceptions about the merger process. “This is the beginning of the beginning,” she said.
Rogers, of San Lorenzo Valley Water District, emphasized that even if the board decides to explore the idea of a merger, they are not committing to unite the two districts.
The Scotts Valley Water Board meets 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11 online or by phone at 646-749-3122, access code 488-730-213. Email board members here.
Jesse Kathan is an environmental journalist based in Sacramento and a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz's science communications program. Kathan has contributed to the Mercury News, Monterey County Weekly and KSQD-FM