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Wonder What Happens When You Turn on The Faucet? Every Drop of Water You Drink in Santa Cruz Starts Here

Water can be pink if it's too clean or brown and sludgy from the San Lorenzo River, but the treatment plant makes sure its crystal clear for you.

Terry McKinney with the pump that sends water to DelaVeaga Golf Course.
Terry McKinney with the pump that sends water to DelaVeaga Golf Course.
When you turn on your faucet today, you can be assured that Terry McKinney and his crew have already looked at what is coming out from their high perch on Graham Hill Road, where every drop of Santa Cruz's water supply passes through boat-sized filters, purifiers, monitors, charcoal and alum, and little clear plastic testers attached to 24-hour running faucets.

If they make a mistake, they quickly get a call from Denny's, the first business down the hill, where customers have seen their water glasses fill with a suddenly pink-colored liquid.

But McKinney has bigger problems to solve today, after weeks and months without rain. They sit on his shoulder like an angel and devil. One tells him that this is the first day the San Lorenzo River flow has dropped under 3 cubic feet per second, the amount State Department of Fish and Wildlife have said it needs to sustain both people and fish. 

That means he has to either ask them to make a concession and let him still take the 8 million gallons a day the city and county needs to drink from the San Lorenzo River, or to start taking it from Loch Lomond, the 175-acre reservoir in Felton which has dropped down to 66 percent of its capacity (which when full, can put out a year's worth of drinking water).

And then there's the other question, probing him like a pitchfork: what should he do at the first rain, which is bound to come? Should he scoop it up and save it in giant million-gallon containers around the county, or let it go because it's so dirty it will severely tax his ability to filter it clean.

Usually, they let it go because of the buildup of dirt and oil washed into the river, but two years of drought have them thinking about the beach town becoming a desert.

Add to that the fact that in the summer Santa Cruzans and their visitors boost their use 13-million gallons a day, and you have some of the issues on the mind of the people who supply your drinking, bathing, lawn watering, strawberry growing and car washing clean liquid.

There's rarely enough to keep everyone happy...and then, sometimes there's way too much to keep everyone safe. That's the complicated charge of McKinney and the 80-90 people working on the miles and miles of pipes and water of a district that encompasses Santa Cruz, UCSC and Live Oak.  

Water has always been California's biggest issue and the fact that the state has allowed almost unlimited growth without requiring the construction of new places to store water has made it more challenging with each year. 

It's also become a political football in Santa Cruz as some want to spend more than $100 million to build a desal system that would purify seawater and give them 2.5 million extra gallons and others claim there are better ways to spend the money and gather and save more of the already existing water.

With the life-sustaining liquid high on people's minds, the city's water department has started offering tours of its water treatment plant on the third Thursday of every month. Around election time, there were 30 people on the tour. It dipped to only three in December and January. It's something everyone who thinks they know where water comes from -- or who have no idea how we get it -- should see. 

You'll get a feel for McKinney's other burning problem as you watch the water go through 12 hours of treatment making it drinkable: the state has taken away the use of clean northern streams reserving them for fish, but breaking down the solids found in the lake or river with chlorine causes a cancer-causing compound called THM, or trihalomethanes, which take seven days to form. 

The more chlorine he uses to clean the water, the more sludge it produces, which has to go down hill to the wastewater treatment plant, which is already up to its limits in sludge.

You learn on the tour that water is a complicated business and also one that students may want to pursue. There are lots of job opportunities helping people drink and stay dry through the muck, floods and droughts. 

Some of it goes counter to what you'd expect. Like the pink water at Denny's, which is the result of the treatment center's water being too clean. Water from the north streams is so pristine that the agents used to clean river water have nothing to glom onto and they show up reddish if someone has forgotten to change the settings.

Or, the fact that you can pump 13 million gallons of water through the treatment system in eight hours and 8 million gallons in 12 hours. Why? More water makes for higher pressure and a faster process. 

Or, even stranger still, why the water fountain outside the water treatment center at Graham Hill Road doesn't come right from the plant. It has to be pumped uphill and then turns around back downhill to reach the building because gravity is the cheapest and most environmental pump.

By the way, McKinney adds, the water you get here from the tap is more strongly monitored than the bottled water you buy. Most bottled water is just tap water with the chlorine filtered out. He says you can get the same result with an under-the-sink filter system or by adding lemon or lime to the water, which removes chlorine.

 



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