In the News

AS WE SEE IT:  READING THE WATER GAUGE

Sentinel Staff Report 

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 03/30/2008

The February rains came, and helped our water situation a bit. And a pilot desalination project is now turning ocean water into fresh water. Certainly, good news for an area that deals with a chronic shortage of water.

But if you look at the glass as half-full or half-empty, we can't help but see a glass with just a few drops in it.

Despite the fickle nature of rain patterns, we manage to get by year-to-year with conservation efforts and a bit of fortunate late-season rainfall. Over the long run, it's not a formula we can rely on. What's needed is a reality check on how we're going to stabilize our water supply.

Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher says that by 2015 the city may not be able to supply water to new customers -- unless a new water source is tapped.

And the only new source anyone is willing to tap is the desalination plant. A 1999 study delivered to the Santa Cruz City Council pointed to desalination as the only alternative. In 2005, Mayor Mike Rotkin said, "We don't have any options but desal."

That's a lot of faith to put in a plant that took eight years to make it from the drawing board to production. The plant, a joint project between Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District, will now run in test mode for at least a year. If it then clears regulatory hurdles, it could take until 2015, according to Kocher, to put a permanent, larger desalination plant into operation.

But the rub here is that no one -- at the moment -- is talking about using the water from desalination to meet future growth needs. The current thinking is that the desalination plant would be used only to get us through droughts.

"I don't want to link this desalination plant with growth," Kocher recently said. And that's understandable. Kocher's main concern at this point is not politics, but ensuring this community has the means to weather a drought. For elected officials as well, tackling the issue of future growth is risky business.

Divorcing the issues of desalination for the purposes of drought or growth, however, may prove to be unavoidable.

If we're going to fill our cup on the promise of desalination, we need to begin the discussion now on what forces are going to shape our future water needs

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