In the News

Water Customers Want to Be Included in Desal Vote
Some 40,000 residents in Santa Cruz's water district could be left out of the public process

By Jacob Pierce
Santa Cruz Weekly, 2/28/12

Supervisor John Leopold wants water customers in the unincorporated county to be able to weigh in on important water decisions. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

If given the choice, Michael Lewis says he’ll vote against any plan to construct a $100 million-plus desalination plant to increase the Santa Cruz area water supply.

“I’m opposed to it for a number of reasons,” says the Live Oak resident. He cites concerns about the plant’s energy usage as well as its location on the federally protected Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “To be drawing water out of there is atrocious. It’s a ridiculous thing to do.”

But Lewis might not have a chance to weigh in. He and his wife Jean Brocklebank are two of about 40,000 Santa Cruz Water Department customers who don’t actually reside within city limits. While two separate proposals to bring the controversial desal project to the public for a vote would guarantee a say for Santa Cruz city residents, those city water customers living outside the city proper would have to stay home on election day.

So would the 38,000 customers of the Soquel Creek Water District—whose water supply (and water bills) would also see a boost from the desal plant. That’s a lot of disenfranchised people, say critics.

County Supervisor John Leopold, whose District 1 constituency includes residents of Live Oak and Soquel, is spearheading the effort to find a way to let water customers in unincorporated parts of the county weigh in. He’s focusing on city of Santa Cruz water customers first.

“It’s going to be very hard to support any construction unless there’s a vote of the people, and that means all of them,” says Leopold, who’s written a letter to Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane in hopes of getting the conversation started.

Leopold wants to know if there is a way for nonresident Santa Cruz water customers to take part in the vote outlined in a new city ordinance proposed by Lane and councilmember David Terrazas. As of press time, Santa Cruz City Council was expected to approve the ordinance on Tuesday, Feb. 28. It would put the desalination plant to a vote of city residents, probably sometime next year.

Leopold says he’s also asked county counsel chief deputy Rahn Garcia to look into the possibility of including Live Oak residents in the city’s election process, but Garcia is not commenting on the matter, citing client privilege.

Leopold notes that water customers in the unincorporated areas already pay a higher water rate than city residents. Santa Cruz Water Director  Bill Kocher confirms that those customers pay rates 26 percent higher than city residents. He says that’s because their water depends on piping and infrastructure that is specific to them and does not benefit the city.

Leopold also notes that out-of-city water customers, who mostly live in Live Oak and Pasatiempo, with a few in Capitola as well, have almost no representation on the city water commission. The seven-member water board has only one non-city member, and he’s appointed by the city.

Leopold wants residents of the Soquel Creek Water District to have a chance to vote on the plant too. Under the desal plan, Soquel Creek would use the plant at half capacity for about 90 percent of the time. But any vote would have to be OK’d by the district’s leaders, and its board has not yet discussed the possibility of holding an election.

Rick Longinotti, a leader of Desal Alternatives, has been gathering signatures for a measure, separate from the one advanced by Lane and Terrazas, that would put desal to a vote, most likely in November 2014. Longinotti says he’d like to join forces with Leopold, but says he can’t for legal reasons: Longinotti says his group’s measure cannot be changed to include out-of-city voters. But he wishes Leopold’s efforts well.

“I totally support his goal, which is to have his constituents in Live Oak have some kind of voice in their water future,” Longinotti says.

Lewis looks forward to voicing his concerns on desalination, but adds there’s more than one way to do that. He says sometimes Americans put too much focus on voting and end up ignoring the other aspects of democracy. If the activist, a member of Desal Alternatives, does not get a chance to cast his vote, he says it won’t be the end of the world. Protest and activism are also important.

“If I were not able to vote on it,” Lewis says, “l wouldn’t sit and cry in my beer, because I [already] take part in democracy on a day-to-day basis. Voting is just one part of it.“

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