In the News

Opinion: Desal opponents misstate the facts

By Mike Rotkin, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1/30/11

I was frankly shocked at the willingness of the authors of a recent op-ed in the Sentinel Jan. 23 opposing desalination in Santa Cruz to mislead readers with fear-based misinformation that they know all too well is inaccurate or distorted at best.

When I first got involved in city water planning over 30 years ago, I was also an opponent of desalination, and I raised virtually every argument that the op-ed cites: intensive energy needs, high cost, concerns for heavy brine concentration as a byproduct, risks to the marine environment from trapping marine life in the intake, lack of sufficient investigation of conservation alternatives and/or alternative water supply sources. However, over the past 30 years, the city has been actively addressing each of these concerns and it is disingenuous for the desal opponents to now raise them as if no progress had been made on any of them. They have all been at meetings where this information was presented.

First, the most egregious of the assertions were the concerns raised about brine concentration and the dangers of killing marine organisms. The first of these is completely resolved by the city's plan to mix the concentrated salt output of the plant with treated wastewater from the city system so the salt concentrations will be exactly the same as the natural water of Monterey Bay. The second has been solved by the design of a low-volume, slow intake that will have no significant impact on sea life.

The city has studied every possible alternative source of water. We have exhausted the search for underground water, off-stream storage, increasing the size of our existing reservoir or building new ones, and exchanging water on a seasonal basis with other districts that plan might help other districts, but nobody has surplus water to share with Santa Cruz. While it is true that a new desalination plant will be expensive to build and operate, the alternatives proposed by opponents of desal would be even more expensive for local families. Using recycled sewage plant effluent remains illegal in California.

We already conserve water extremely well. Santa Cruz has been highly successful with conservation. We use less than half of the state's per capita average. The proponents, however, make the mistake of thinking that there will be no problem in conserving more. While most local residents are willing to cut back even more than our usual level of conservation during droughts, even to the point of letting lawns die, I doubt we are willing, as some have suggested at public hearings, to prohibit daily showers, to only allow flushing toilets occasionally or to give up our beautiful gardens. That is what would be required if we had a drought no more serious than the one we had here in 1976-77.

The biggest concern, on which the city is still working, is energy use, but the plan is to build sufficient alternative energy capacity, e.g. solar on virtually every city building, to offset the proposed plant's energy demands. This can work, particularly, because we would generate energy every year, but only use the plant in droughts every six to seven years on average.

Soquel Creek Water District will have a more difficult time addressing energy concerns, since they will operate the plant year-round in most years, albeit at about half of the plant's capacity. They too, however, are committed to finding a way to operate the plant on a greenhouse gas neutral basis.

So, I am not surprised that there are opponents to desal. I used to be among them. But critics need to be honest in raising real concerns and not ones that they know have been resolved over the past 30 years. In sum, desalination has some serious drawbacks, but it is the only real alternative if residents expect water to come out of the tap during serious droughts -- which are inevitable.

Mike Rotkin is a former Santa Cruz city councilman and mayor.

© 2008-2013 scwd2 Desalination Program, All rights reserved.