In the News

Group kicks off campaign to put desal before Santa Cruz voters

By Cathy Kelly
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/13/12

SANTA CRUZ - Organizers of a ballot measure designed to put a planned desalination plant to a vote are set to begin circulating petitions around the city.

About 100 people attended a kickoff party Sunday for a drive to place a measure on the November ballot that would require Santa Cruz city leaders to obtain voter approval before the desal plant is built.

If passed by a majority of city voters, the measure would amend the city's charter to ensure the city "does not approve, permit or fund a desalination plant without voter approval." The amendment also would bar the city from incurring debt for the controversial project.

Rick Longinotti, a desal opponent and member of the initiative's steering committee, told the crowd assembled at India Joze restaurant that they would need about 5,500 signatures, or about 15 percent of city voters, by May to get on the ballot. Sunday's event served to sign up petition volunteers.

The measure, dubbed the Right to Vote on Desalination, does not take a position on whether a desalination plant is a good idea, he said. But he believes voters should be able to decide.

"We're hoping to pick up support of people who haven't decided," he said. "It's a whole lot of money and a whole lot of environmental impact."

Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, which Longinotti founded, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom are active in the campaign, he said.

Richard Stover, who recently retired from industrial development at Lick Observatory, said he came to the meeting because he feels strongly that people's voices should be heard on the important issue.

"I'm very much in favor of putting this on the ballot so we can all have input," Stover said. "And I'd need some real evidence that it's truly needed. I'd like to see a lot more real facts. I've also come to the conclusion that business as usual for the future is not sustainable.

"Water processing and pumping takes a lot of energy. Can they run a desal plant with a solar array?"

The city Water Department and its desal partner, Soquel Creek Water District, have said a desalination plant is necessary to offset supply shortages during drought years. It would be paid for largely through increases on ratepayers, some of whom live outside the city and would be ineligible to vote on the measure.

Opponents say the plant would require too much energy, negatively affect marine life and water quality, and cost too much.

The regional seawater desal plant, if built, would be the largest and costliest infrastructure project in the city's history and directly affect half the county's population. Already, more than $12 million has been spent pursuing and promoting it. It is estimated that it would cost a minimum of $116 million to build the plant on the city's Westside.

A draft environmental impact report on the plant is due in April, but city officials don't expect a final report will be ready for the council to certify before November's election.

Georgia Brewer, a Santa Cruz artist, said she came to Sunday's kickoff because she doesn't want the city to "steamroll" a desalination plant through.

"The cost and environmental effects are atrocious," Brewer said. "And is it for the university? You bet."

Longinotti estimated it will cost $8,000 for the signature gathering portion of campaign, with will include a part-time paid coordinator and volunteer signature gatherers. The group will be doing fundraisers, he said.

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