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College Lake eyed as possible water supply: Seasonal lake has flood control

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Donna Jones

WATSONVILLE -- Every winter, College Lake fills with water from seasonal rains, and every spring, the water is pumped out so growers can plant summer crops.

But for years, the 320-acre seasonal lake near the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds east of Watsonville has been eyed as a possible water source for a thirsty Pajaro Valley.

Now, a coalition of government agencies is in line for nearly $1 million in state grants to study water supply and quality and flood control throughout the Pajaro River watershed. Included in the grant proposal -- which has been recommended for approval by the state Department of Water Resources but awaits a final OK in January -- is $230,000 to look at how College Lake could be tapped to enhance water supply, flood control and fish habitat.

"This area collects a bunch of water and we pump it into the ocean," said Frank Capurro, a grower based on coastal land near Moss Landing. "There's an opportunity to try to do something with it."

Capurro stood on a bank of Salsipuedes Creek near Valley Catholic Church on East Lake Avenue on Thursday, along with Santa Cruz County Water Resources Division Director John Ricker, Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency General Manager Mary Bannister and Karen Christensen, executive director of the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County.

College Lake is a fault-zone depression with heavy clay soil that holds water draining from Salsipuedes Creek and the surrounding watershed during the rainy season.

From the spot where the group stood, above a deteriorating weir, or small dam, the lake was about 100 yards upstream, a third full at this time of year. Less than a mile downstream, Salsipuedes dumps into Corralitos Creek.

Bannister estimated the lake could produce as much as 2,000 acre feet of water, far short of the groundwater deficit that's plagued the Pajaro Valley for decades. Current estimates peg the deficit at about 14,000 acre feet, though a new study is scheduled to provide an updated figure in February.

Still, 2,000 acre feet is enough to irrigate about 1,000 acres of strawberries, or nearly a third of all the strawberries grown in Santa Cruz County in 2009.

Ricker said it's possible water could be diverted to the lake from Corralitos and Salsipuedes creeks during storms as part of a flood control effort.

Christensen said improvements could be made to ensure the survival of steelhead that frequent the creeks as well. By studying College Lake from an integrated management perspective, she said, there's the potential for a "win-win" solution.

But the group cautioned the multiple issues could make any project complicated.

And "you have to deal with the cost," Capurro said. No one will want to spend a "boatload of money" without a comparable water payoff.

Another factor is the quality of the water, which wouldn't be potable or usable for irrigation without treatment. For one thing, growers would worry about water-borne soil diseases, Capurro said.

"It's not as simple as just dropping a pump in," he said.

But water issues have long divided the Pajaro Valley, and Bannister noted College Lake has generated community interest and support. A project could be part of a larger basin management plan that the agency will develop in coming months, she said. "Everyone sees it and feels it's an obvious way to get water into the system," she said.

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