In the News

Santa Cruz, get it together on water and growth

By Gary Patton
Commentary, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 4/24/11

The city of Santa Cruz is facing some fundamental questions, and water supply issues are central. Because the city provides water for residents and businesses not only in the city, but also in Live Oak, Capitola, and Pasatiempo and because the city is planning to build a desalination plant with the Soquel Creek Water District, which provides water to Capitola, Soquel, Aptos, Rio Del Mar and La Selva Beach, the City Council's decisions will affect something like 50 percent or more of the population of Santa Cruz County.

Here are three questions currently pending:

1 What sort of long-term plan for future growth and development is most appropriate? This question is posed in the city's General Plan deliberations.

2 Should UCSC be given access to city water to accommodate a major expansion? This question is posed by the city/university applications to the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO.

3 What sort of future water supplies should be provided? This question is posed by the proposed desalination plant, and has been linked to a proposed Habitat Conservation Plan HCP, to be approved by federal and state resource agencies.

The city is acting like these are three discrete inquiries. The city's consideration and environmental review of these three projects is taking place as three separate processes, on separate timelines, separately funded, and sequenced so that the information developed on one of the inquiries is not readily available with respect to decisions made on the related issues.

The city needs to "get it together." The current approach is likely to cause legal problems, since the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, demands that the environmental review of related projects not be inappropriately "segmented." Legalities aside, the city is making it almost impossible for the public to understand what choices are actually available, and what choices are actually being made.

Should the city build a desalination plant? That question is related to the question of whether the city is going to back the university's play for significant new growth almost doubling the physical construction on campus. Should the city have a General Plan goal of being able to accommodate any amount of new growth and development that might present itself? If "yes," then maybe building a desalination plant would be advisable. But we don't know the "answer" to these questions, yet, and the answers should be provided in conjunction with the decision on desalination.

There isn't any question that the city should reduce its diversion of water from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams. The city's current operations are killing endangered species, and federal and state laws require the city to cut back its diversions. This fact, however, does not necessarily mean that a desalination plant is required. An April 5 presentation by the city water director seemed to imply that conclusion, but anyone who sat through the entirety of the council meeting, including the public testimony, knows there are non-desalination options that could deal with the fish flow issues.

Desalination is the decision that backs a major expansion of UCSC. Desalination is the decision that makes it possible for the city to continue to accommodate whatever new growth may come. Going with desalination is about accommodating new growth and development, including that major expansion of UCSC. Whether or not that is the right approach will be decided in the pending General Plan and LAFCO deliberations. But shouldn't the key future growth decisions be directly related to the decision on the desalination plant, instead of having the desalination decision tied solely to a discussion about water supplies and fish? My answer is, "yes."

And here's a final point. What would this proposed desalination plant actually cost, in both financial and ecological terms? Until we know that, how can we say we should be backing a doubling of the UCSC built environment, and adopting a "let growth come" approach to the city's General Plan? Where water and growth are concerned, the city needs to "get it together."

Gary Patton is "Of Counsel" to the environmental law firm of Wittwer & Parkin, LLP. He was a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors from 1975 to 1995.

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