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Commentary

While not ideal, desalination is the best solution

By Howard Whitney, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 3/13/11

The ongoing debate regarding the proposed Santa Cruz-Soquel Creek desalination project reads like the old story of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant to the king: isolated feelings prevent a big-picture perspective.

Critics falsely claim "the city's water system has been inefficient and deteriorating ... solutions include replacing inefficient fixtures, improving irrigation, plugging system leaks, enhancing reservoir operations, adopting water-neutral development policies and using state-of-the art technologies." The city implemented all this and more, preventing extreme shortfalls other Californians endured during the recent three-year drought.

Another claim, exploiting cherry-picked data when Santa Cruz lost most major industrial water users, implemented conservation and struggled through drought cutbacks, erroneously asserts that new water supply is unnecessary because demand stopped growing. Don't be fooled, Santa Cruz is not now prepared for a severe drought and future demand increases these risks.

Gerald Weber, a well-respected local geologist, proposed groundwater extraction from the aquifer beneath UC Santa Cruz. According to his reports, all annual rainfall recharging the aquifer flows directly into a dozen spring-fed streams between the Pogonip and Wilder Ranch, leaving no extra for extraction. Pumping the UCSC aquifer for drought emergency would cause unacceptable environmental damage to precious riparian wetland habitats.

James Bentley, retired city water plant superintendant, recommends exchanging surface water from Santa Cruz for groundwater from Soquel Creek. This is great for long-term growth, but unfeasible for emergency drought protection. It will take 10 to 20 years after construction before the depleted Soquel Creek aquifers might possibly fill up to sustainable levels that the city could count on during a multi-year severe drought. It is uncertain if the restored Soquel Creek aquifers could ever supply Santa Cruz with an emergency drought supply. We can't risk finding out in 20 or 30 years that this approach won't work.

Local water professionals Howard Mauthe and Owen Miller support a new dam on Zayante Creek. They make a good case that this is the best environmental and economic solution. Santa Cruz evaluated and rejected several dam projects in the 1994 Water Supply Alternatives Study. During the Integrated Water Plan process, myself, fellow commissioner the late Bill Cox and the engineering consultants lobbied staff, the commission, the committee and council to consider a number of dam alternatives. In my opinion, the City Council decided not to study dam projects after 1994 for political reasons. I did not like this decision, but believe council was right because a proposed dam would likely be defeated by a perfect storm of local activist groups joining together in opposition.

There is a saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. This is appropriate to the proposed desalination project. Desalination is not the ideal solution; however, it is the most realistic. The fear of growth inducement is mitigated by desalination because upgrades are made as needed due to actual demand or declines in supply. Soquel Creek will refill its aquifers for supplying its needs, restore riparian wetland habitat in Soquel Creek and Aptos Creek, and increase reliability of the aquifer shared with Santa Cruz. Desalination provides a self-contained water supply and treatment system fed by an inexhaustible source of water. For a disaster0prone community, this feature is priceless.

The proposed desalination "camel" is not particularly efficient or elegant, but it will reliably carry our community across the desert of a severe drought to the next oasis.

Howard Whitney is a professional geologist, certified hydro geologist, and self-employed environmental and water supply consultant. He spent 10 years on the city's Water Commission and was chairman of the Integrated Water Plan committee.

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