Drought Preparedness: Small Water Systems

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Santa Cruz County residents are already experiencing the effects of climate change, which are expected to only increase in the coming decades.  These effects include longer, more intense, and more frequent droughts, which are punctuated by more extreme rain events.  Additionally, wildfire risk in the County is projected to continue increasing, with the danger being greatest in the mountainous areas of north and central county. Residents that get their water from a small water system are especially vulnerable to these impacts, but the County has resources to help your water system adapt to climate change. 

How Can the County Help Your Water System?

Santa Cruz County has secured funding for several programs that can help small water systems that have been impacted by drought.

Increasing drought conditions can lead to wells going dry. Santa Cruz County has secured funding to provide 3,800 gallons of hauled water per household every 6 weeks, at no cost, to small water system managers whose wells have gone dry due to drought. To receive this assistance, you will need to report the dry well through the State reporting system. County staff will review the report to determine if the well is likely to have gone dry or if there is another issue causing the well to stop producing water. If the well is likely dry, we will coordinate with you and the water hauler to fill your onsite storage tanks while a long-term solution is pursued.

Santa Cruz County has a Well Sounding Program that small water systems can utilize.  This process uses a sonic sounding device to determine where the water level is in your well.  When compared to the total depth of the well, this can tell you how much water is currently available for use. Small Water Systems that meet certain criteria can also enroll in biannual measurements of their well.  This not only provides you with valuable water level trend information, but it also helps the county gain a better understanding of how groundwater levels are changing throughout the county.  Please note, not every well has the access port required for a reading. Before scheduling an appointment, please confirm your well has an access port similar to the images below

Changes in groundwater levels caused by drought or flooding can affect the quality of the water in your well. If you believe your well is contaminated, you can request testing from the County Water Quality Lab or one of these Water Testing Laboratories. Santa Cruz County is also partnering with the Central Coast Drinking Water Well Testing Program, which provides free well testing to all county residents.

If testing reveals that your well is contaminated, County staff can provide information on potential health effects and possible treatment solutions . The County can also provide free alternate water sources to income qualified residents, including bottled water delivery, water storage tank filling, and Point of Use (POU) treatment systems. POU treatment systems are usually located at the kitchen sink to provide a treated source of water in the household. County residents with contaminated wells can apply for these free services by completing the form below and returning it to sean.abbey@santacruzcountyca.gov.

How Can You Help Your Water System?

There are many actions that you can take right now to help your water system adapt to Climate Change. In this section, we will be providing links to useful tools that have been created by the The Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC).  The RCAC is a nonprofit organization that provides training, technical and financial resources to small water systems and the tools are all available on their website: https://www.rcac.org/tools/.

The first, and most important, action is to familiarize yourself with your water system components.  Gathering essential information such as the total well depth, how deep the well pump is, and the maximum flow rate will help you establish what the limits of your system are.  Creating this assest inventory is not only good practice for maintenance management, but is also critical for reimbursemnet in the event of a disaster. In the event of wildfire, or similar disaster, this documentation can be used when filing insurance claims or requesting assistance from FEMA.  The RCAC has a simple assest inventory worksheet here: 

  1. https://www.rcac.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/AsstInventoryWorksheetv13.xls

Generally, water systems can apply for FEMA asssitance if they are listed as a 501(c) non-profit organization because they provide a critical service to the public. Santa Cruz County staff is currently looking for resources to help water systems register as a 501 (c) non-profit.  For more information on who is eligible and when, please visit the FEMA webpage here: https://www.fema.gov/assistance/public

To apply for FEMA assistance, please visit: https://www.disasterassistance.gov/


Once you are familiar with your water system components, make sure that everything is in good condition and protected from potential disasters.  Look at the areas around your water system components from the prespective of wildfire and flood risks.  For wildfires, complete the home hardening tasks decribed in the CalFire webpage, Hardening Your Home, around your water system components.  For floodrisk, observe the area around your wellhead and confirm it is not located in an area that may have localized flooding.  If possible, grade the area to allow water to flow away from your wellhead and install a concrete wellpad that is 18" above grade.  Flooding around your wellhead is a serious risk to water quality and should be managed as described in this guidance document: Flooded Well Guidance.   

Finally, one of the most important ways you can prepare your system for emergencies is to make sure you are collecting enough income to support your system.  Many water systems only collect enough to cover day to day expenses and are unable to build a reserve fund that can be utilized when emergency situations occur.  The RCAC has a financial calculator that can help you determine how much reserve funding may be required, and what rate changes may be required to collect it.

  1. FinancialToolboxv10-3.xls (live.com)


Once you are familiar with your water system, your next step will be to reduce the demand on it by conserving water as much as is possible.  Every gallon of water that is extracted by your well not only costs money in electricty and equipment wear, but also draws from the limited supply of water in your aquifer.  A water system that has a lower baseline water use will be able to last longer in drought conditions than one that does not conserve water.  This can be done in multiple ways;

  1. Helping customers conserve. Make sure your customers are aware of how best to conserve water and where to check for leaks in their home. The Water Conservation Coalition of Santa Cruz County provides many helpful tips that can help homeowners use water more efficiently and identify leaks:  According to the US EPA, approximately 1 in 10 households has a leak that is wasting 90 gallons per day or more!  More information can also be found at Save Our Water California.
  2. Completing a water audit.  Knowing how much water was extracted from your sources, and how much was delivered to consumers, will show you how much water is being lost along the way.
    1. https://www.rcac.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Water-Audit-Worksheet.xls
  3. Take advantage of Leak Detection Resources from the State. To help address leaks in rural communities with aging infrastructure, The Department of Water Resources (DWR) partnered with the California Rural Water Association to offer free leak detection surveys for small systems.  Small Water systems interested in scheduling a free leak detection survey can contact Ruby Viramontes with the California Rural Water Association

 When an emergency does happen, you should know where to look for information. The Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience provides resources for a variety of potential disasters: SCC OR3 Resources (santacruzcounty.us). In addition to OR3, the following resources can also be useful tools to prepare for and respond to emergencies:

California has created multiple online resources that can help you identify risks to the groundwater that your well relies on.  A review of these resources can tell you if your well is in an area that is more likely to experience water shortages, water quality problems, or is at increased risk to drought overall.

  1. The overall risk of drought impacts in the county can be seen by clicking on the map below:
  2. The risks to water quantity in the county can be seen by clicking on the map below: 
  3. The risks to water quality in the county can be seen by clicking on the map below:  

Considerations for Consolidation:

Consolidation is when two systems merge into a single system, which can be an effective long term solution for some struggling water systems. Struggling systems would be experiencing severe and persistent water quality violations and/or a general failure to provide safe and reliable water.  The County cannot force consolidation, but will help facilitate the process if it is desired by all parties. The authority to mandate or force consolidations is given only to the State Water Resource Control Board (SWRCB) and less than ten systems statewide have been ordered to consolidate.

The SWRCB has increased staffing dedicated to the topic of water system partnerships and consolidations, and can provide guidance to water systems considering consolidation. Consolidation Approach - Step by Step | California State Water Resources Control Board

Outreach Resources:

  • The County holds Small Water Systems Forum  meetings that provide updates and trainings on various topics.  Notices are sent to all water systems prior to the meeting.  
  • Upcoming outreach events calendar


On December 13, 2022, the Board of Supervisors approved the Drought Response and Outreach Plan (DROP), which is intended to facilitate drought and water shortage preparedness for state small water systems and domestic wells within the Santa Cruz County’s jurisdiction. This plan was created in response to Senate Bill (SB) 552. More information about the SB 552 and DROP creation process can be found here.