In the News

Opinion: Why the city should shelve desal plan

By PAUL GRATZ, RICK LONGINOTTI and DAVID STEARNS
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1/23/11

Is seawater desalination the solution to Santa Cruz's water supply needs? It is tempting to believe that desalination is the water supply panacea for rescuing us. However, the public needs solutions that are sustainable over the long haul.

Even with weather and rainfall variability, when Santa Cruz implements storage preservation, management efficiencies and consumer education, there is an adequate supply of water. Therefore, it is critically important to consider both the advantages and disadvantages of a desalination plant in order to make well-informed, sound choices.

Five key problems

1. Energy use and climate change. Desalination a.k.a. "liquid electricity" is the most energy-intensive and greenhouse-gas emitting way of producing water. Manufactured water from desalination plants require 7-10 times the energy of groundwater pumping.

2. Unknown cost to ratepayers. Currently, water supply costs $170 per million gallons to treat in contrast to desalination that ranges from $3,600-$6,000 per million gallons. Since the city developed its Integrated Water Plan 2003, political, cultural, environmental and economic circumstances have changed, including plant construction costs. For example, in 2003 the construction cost estimate was $32 million. Now, it has increased to a range of $59 million to $70 million, plus pre-construction costs of $17.5 million. The desalination industry assumption that costs will fall is false. Given rising energy prices, operating costs will certainly increase.

3. Marine life impacts. Small organisms are killed during the processing of seawater. Concentrated brine, toxic chemicals and biohazards discharged by the plant could present significant marine environment challenges.

4. Quality and safety. Failed reverse-osmosis membranes could allow hazardous salts and red tide neurotoxins to enter the water supply. Mixing of desalinated water with city water from streams puts neighborhoods at risk of consuming carcinogenic tri-halomethanes and red tide neurotoxins.

5. Illusion. The illusion that there are "no alternatives to desalination" is the ultimate bureaucratic trick. Exclusively pursuing desalination diverts public attention, thoughtful discussion, money, talent and resources away from implementing more appropriate technologies and viable alternatives.

Three key questions

1. When will the local media investigate who the winners and losers will be if a desalination plant is built?

2. The 8-year-old Integrated Water Plan projected demand to be 4.8 billion gallons for 2010. That projection, however, was off by 35 percent -- as actual use was 3.1 billion gallons in 2010. How much further will demand need to drop before officials decide that we do not need a desalination plant designed for a different future?

3. The city is already cash-strapped. Why add additional financial burdens for households, businesses, and institutional consumers when sensible, less-costly water supply alternatives exist?

What to do

The city should immediately craft a comprehensive water solution package that incorporates regional collaboration, consistent year-round conservation, demand reduction incentives, water-neutral development, increased reservoir storage and infrastructure improvements.

Before expending more public funds on a desalination plant, the City Council should follow the example of Marin Municipal Water District by shelving this risky project.

If our elected officials do not change course and take a prudent alternative approach, citizens should place the desalination project to a public vote.

Keep daily water use under 60 gallons per person.

Get involved! Contact Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives www.DesalAlternatives.org, a local grass-roots group that opposes the desalination steamroller and promotes sustainable water alternatives.

Paul Gratz is a longtime Santa Cruz resident, consumer advocate, health educator and planner. Rick Longinotti is a retired electrical contractor and co-founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives. Davis Stearns grew up in Santa Cruz and works as an advocate for sustainable solutions to our city's most pressing challenges.

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