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The desal debate: Let's just have one vote on desalination

By Don Lane
Opinion, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 2/26/12

Opponents of the desalination facility being considered through a partnership between the city of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District are circulating petitions to place a "right to vote" measure on the local ballot. Their hearts are in the right place in proposing that a community vote take place. Unfortunately, their partisan agenda is embedded in the specific language of the measure they propose and therefore presents some real problems.

First, the measure contains biased and speculative statements about the water situation in our community. For instance, the measure suggests that there are simple alternative solutions to meet our water needs when, in fact, none of the options before us are simple. Further, many of the specific statements of "fact" are actually opinions that are not demonstrably true.

Next, though the anti-desal folks are always talking about saving money, they suddenly lost their frugality by proposing a ballot measure that will lead to a second ballot measure. This is likely to be costly on two fronts. First, each of the two ballot measures they propose will cost local taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Second, they've created a time schedule in their proposal that means a community decision on desalination has to be delayed for more than two years. Perhaps there is some value in this delay that I am unable to discern. One thing I know for sure is that delaying a decision on desal for an extra year would easily cost ratepayers millions of dollars if the project eventually gets voter approval. It is not hard to see that a one-year delay -- which would easily add a couple of percentage points in additional cost -- would amount to millions of dollars on a project costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million.

Lastly, the anti-desalination folks have set their vote up so that only the residents of the city of Santa Cruz will get to vote on the desal issue. But there are customers of the city Water Department who live outside the city limits and this measure does not include them. Similarly, the anti-desal folks have not made any move to include the voters of the Soquel Creek Water District in the decision. In other words, they have hastened to push their city of Santa Cruz measure without including a process for all these other, equally effected voters.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this.

Santa Cruz City Councilman David Terrazas and I have put forward an ordinance that would mandate the community election that we all want -- without the extra cost or the extra politics of the measure put forward by the anti-desal folks. It delivers a single election on the issue. It delivers an approach that contains neither unsubstantiated claims nor wishful thinking. Just a vote on the real question we face. And because our measure has some flexibility not contained in the anti-desal measure, it will make it easier to coordinate an election with the other jurisdictions involved, if they choose hold a similar election.

The desalination issue is already complicated enough. Let's all agree on a single vote that is as timely as possible and then begin an educated discussion on our water future -- with fewer drops of political partisanship.

Don Lane is mayor of Santa Cruz.

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