In the News

Santa Cruz City Council Moves Closer to Desalination Plant
Plans to build a desalination plant and decrease city use of stream water to be submitted to the federal agencies that monitor endangered wildlife.

By Patrick Evans
Santa Cruz Patch, 4/6/11

The Santa Cruz City Council took a big step Tuesday toward getting the salt out of ocean water and putting the water back into the groundwater table in an effort to preserve the fish that are so important to the area's economy.

In a special public session councilmembers voted unanimously to direct the water department to negotiate a Habitat Conservation Plan with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for decreasing city use of river and reservoir water, and to begin construction of a desalination plant.

 The council listened to a presentation by Bill Kocher, director of the Santa Cruz Water Department, and consultants, who favored the plan. About 15 public attendees also spoke including students from UCSC and members of local and national environmental groups like the Sierra club, who were overwhelmingly opposed to a desalination plant.

 Santa Cruz  is the subject of legal action by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which declared the city in violation of the Endangered Species Act in 2002 for killing and harming protected fish species, an act known as “take.”

“Take” results from the overconsumption of stream water and decreases of the supply from soil erosion into watersheds, commonly caused by development and deforestation.

 NOAA Fisheries mandated that Santa Cruz increase current yearly water levels in rivers such as the San Lorenzo until endangered fish are no longer threatened. The city could face legal injunction by the Attorney General, and civil or criminal charges from the U.S. government.

 Until levels are fixed, the city is barred from using stream water. The Santa Cruz water supply could lose anywhere from 800 million to 1,600 million gallons a year, according to the water department. which would force unprecedentedly strict rationing for customers.

 The water department will now take its Habitat Conservation Plan to NOAA for approval, a process which may take two years.

The Conservation Plan has two main parts: first the city would offset stream-water use with the construction of a 2.5 million gallons-per-day desalination plant, which would cost $99 million and wouldn't be operational until 2015. The plant would also likely increase in capacity, to 4.5 million gallons-per-day by 2030, and exceed $100 million in total cost.

Secondly, the city would implement a habitat quality measurement program, which would grade the city by the yearly amount of stream water and water consumption.

 The grades would indicate whether the city was merely maintaining current fish habitats, or improving them and increasing water flow in streams. The city aims to keep between 700 million gallons and 1,200 million gallons of water in streams during favorable  years.

 The city would also create a fund to replace stream water with water from outside sources at a cost of $500,000 in years when consumption is high, to $250,000 when use is average.

 The Water Department will negotiate with NOAA to determine the exact details of its Habitat Conservation Plan, and the size and production capacity of the proposed desalinization plant. A decision on the plant will not be made until a review of its possible environmental impacts is completed.

The plant could use 6,800 to 13,700 mega watts per years, and produce 318 tons of CO2 in its projected 40 year lifespan, according to DesalAlternatives, a Santa Cruz group opposed to the water department's plan. Mayor Ryan Coonerty said the city would not support any non carbon-neutral development.

 DesalAlternatives members also said that the city's plan is too expensive and would not address soil erosion. The group said demand for water has been down  the past five years, so the plant was unnecessary.

 The water department dismissed such criticism as misinformed. NOAA, it said, was not interested in conserving water or decreasing demand, only in increasing flowing water levels, and a desalinization plant was the only means to ensure city compliance.

To de-salt or not, that is the question...It works in Southern California and desert cities. Why not here? Tell us in the comments.

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