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Guest Opinion

Transparency vital to desal vote

Guest Opinion, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/19/12
By Bill Tysseling

The Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce welcomes the timeliness and transparency of the proposal for a community vote on desalination being brought forward by Mayor Don Lane and Santa Cruz City Councilman David Terrazas. The ordinance would mandate a vote of the people before proceeding to construction of a local desalination facility. We agree with them that the community should have the opportunity to vote sooner rather than later on how Santa Cruz will address the need for long-term drought protection and the preservation of its coastal aquifers.

More importantly, contrary to the arcane provisions of a ballot measure proposed by the DesalAlternatives group, there should be only one vote -- not a vote to require a subsequent vote as DesalAlternatives has proposed. And a final vote should occur prior to 2014 if possible, contrary to their proposal.

Water supply in times of drought has been a serious issue for decades in Santa Cruz. The city Water Department has spent more than 20 years researching options for this problem. The realities are that every new supply source would involve environmental issues and major expenditures and that we cannot sustain on current sources alone. For a variety of technical, legal and political reasons, the best solution has been identified as construction of a desalination facility by a partnership of two adjacent water districts. It would provide the Santa Cruz Water Department with water in times of drought and the Soquel Creek Water District with water in rainy years with which they could recharge their overdrafted aquifers.

The shortfall in times of drought -- already a threat to local jobs, community institutions and businesses -- is expected to be significantly increased by state and federal mandates to protect the habitat of endangered fish species. While the specifics of these mandates are not yet known, they are certain to reduce Santa Cruz's ability to draw water from its North Coast streams, especially in drought years.

The measure proposed by Lane and Terrazas would avoid the risky and expensive delay of two elections. Of course the most significant risk is a serious drought which would have dire economic consequences in its second and subsequent years. The DesalAlternatives proposal would also result in the expense of a second election -- $60,000 to $80,000 to the city alone. And, the projected construction costs are likely to increase as the construction industry recovers over the next decade, making delay of the election costly.

It is fair to say that building and operating a desalination plant will add some cost to our water bills. Of course any source of additional water will add some cost. Assuming that continuing research demonstrates a desalination plant to be both commercially feasible and environmentally sound, we believe this is simply the best and lowest-cost insurance against an avoidable economic catastrophe. We recognize that we cannot as a community hope to avoid either a serious and extended drought or its grave economic consequences if we fail to develop an alternative water source. We are confident the voters will agree.

Bill Tysseling is executive director of the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce.

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