In the News

City, Activists Stand by Separate Desal Initiatives
Mayor will drop ordinance if activists' ballot initiative succeeds

By Jacob Pierce
Santa Cruz Weekly, 2/21/12

When Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane read local activists’ ballot initiative to put desal to a vote, he says one thing caught his attention. It had to do with timing.

Lane agrees with a host of activists that Santa Cruz voters should weigh in on whether or not to build a $100 million-plus desalination plant on the Westside to increase the fresh water supply. But they agree on little else—including when to hold the vote.

Lane, who says he sees himself being “stuck” with plans for a desal plant because he hasn’t seen any viable alternatives, says it should happen as soon as the city is ready, probably in 2013.

The original initiative, written by Rick Longinotti and fellow activist Paul Gratz, sets a date of November 2014 for a vote on the fate of the plant, a delay Lane says could wind up costing water customers millions of dollars as material and building costs rise.

“There’s no need for it,” says Lane.

With that in mind, Lane and Councilmember David Terrazas last week proposed an ordinance that would allow Santa Cruzans to vote on the plant “as soon as practicable” after the plans and environmental impact report are finished. The city council is expected to approve the move on Feb. 28. It could mean a vote as early as June 2013.

Longinotti, founder of the group Desal Alternatives, says he’s happy Lane and Terrazas are taking the issue seriously enough to codify putting it to voters.

“I think they should be congratulated for that,” says Longinotti. “If they’re going to try to use it to rush it through, that’s where we don’t agree, which is why we’re still working on the ballot initiative.”

Longinotti, worried that a 2013 special election could hurt his chances of stopping the plant, is moving forward with his own proposed charter amendment. The Right to Vote on Desal has hired a part-time employee to gather up signatures and is trying to raise $8,000 to fund that effort. If the group succeeds in gathering signatures from 15 percent of registered voters (about 5,500 people), Longinotti and Gratz will get a measure on the November 2012 ballot.

But here it gets complicated (or Kafkaesque, depending on your thinking). Under Longinotti’s proposal, Santa Cruzans wouldn’t be voting on the plant this November. They’d be voting on whether or not to vote on the plant in November 2014.

Fear of Desal

If Longinotti and company get their November initiative, Lane says the council will overturn its own ordinance rather than hold a third election.

“We would of course have to abide by the voters’ wishes and hold the election when the charter decides,” says Lane. “That would fulfill the requirements of our ordinance.”

Longinotti says that in addition to his concerns about the financial and environmental costs of the plant, he also has problems with Lane’s sped-up process. Longinotti says the city needs more time to study possible water transfers with the Soquel Creek Water District. Those plans would involve pumping city water to the neighboring district in the winter and maybe having that water come back to Santa Cruz during droughts.

The water swap plan isn’t perfect, though. Even the county Resource Conservation District’s John Ricker, the man who thought of the swap and became something of a folk hero to environmental activists, has said it isn’t a viable alternative to desalination; Soquel Creek Water District’s overdraft problems are too severe.

Longinotti also fears well-funded desal supporters would take the edge in a special election. Off-year elections tend to draw smaller numbers of voters, so successful campaigns tend to be targeted and expensive.

“It could hurt our chances if there was a heavily funded campaign to target likely voters in a special election that we should spend millions of dollars on a desal plant,” says Longinotti.

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