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As We See It: Muddying the waters: Competing desal measures further cloud water debate

Editorial, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/17/12

One vote.

That's what should happen with dueling proposals to raise taxes for Californians -- and that's also the preferable outcome in the local desalination debate.

Local water customers in Santa Cruz and Mid-County probably have enough on their minds as the nearly rainless winter grows ever drier without trying to decipher the politics of just who will approve turning salt water into fresh water and when and how this will happen.

First, opponents of building a Westside desal plant said they planned a ballot measure that would ask voters whether they want to approve the facility in the future. The measure would also prohibit the city from incurring future debt associated with the plant. The opponents, Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, need to collect 5,500 signatures to get their initial measure on the November ballot.

Not to be undone, however, the city has struck back, with Mayor Don Lane announcing a proposed ordinance, presumably backed by desal proponents, that would lead to a ballot measure as soon as 2013, also giving voters the final say about the water plant.

Lane, joined by Councilman David Terrazas, said this ordinance would be better for water customers than the charter amendment sought by the anti-desal group because voters would only be approving construction of a plant, not permitting or other preparatory steps. Also, under the opponents' measure a yes-or-no question wouldn't reach the ballot before 2014. Moreover, the additional election proposed by opponents would cost the city an estimated $50,000.

But, here's the rub -- and it's one certainly chafing opponents: They agreed to first seek approval for surveying voters on the desal proposal after the city attorney described their initial plan for an ordinance change as too broad in its usurpation of the city's legislative authority.

So, opponents rewrote their initiative as a charter change amendment.

Then the council followed up with its own proposal for an ordinance change, which they will take up at their meeting Feb. 28. If the change is approved, it would clear the way for a vote on the desal plant in 2013.

Opponents, who say the city's plans don't change theirs, are already arguing the council ordinance setting up a referendum on desal could be repealed by a future council -- a distinct possibility since four council seats are up for grabs in November. In response, Lane said voters could then file an appeal, which would put the matter back to a vote again.

Got all that?

The reason the politicking is getting hot and heavy is because the desal argument invokes a host of classic Santa Cruz issues, including conservation, growth, UC Santa Cruz and coastal protection.

And the plant, which would have the capacity to transform into drinking water at least 2.5 million gallons of seawater a day, would cost in excess of $100 million, with the Soquel district sharing in the expenses.

The first draft of an environmental impact report may be ready in about two months, followed by public hearings, and then, it appears, a vote.

The merits of desal aside -- and it's a complex and detailed argument we'll be delving into in coming months -- city backers of desal are clearly attempting to shift the focus away from opponents. Instead of being forced into a referendum on desal, backers would be the ones asking for voters' approval.

In any case, Santa Cruz being Santa Cruz, if the desal project proceeds, opponents almost certainly would attempt legal challenges to stop it. The state Coastal Commission will also have to give the plant its blessing.

And the costs, and confusion, will only increase.

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