In the News

Desalination debate: Suspicion high ahead of environmental report

By J.M. Brown
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 5/7/13

SANTA CRUZ -- Desalination opponents lined up Tuesday to warn top decision makers in two local water agencies not to continue pursuing seawater desalination as a fix to overtaxed aquifers and severe drought.

Before a draft environmental impact report for a proposed $128 million seawater intake and desalting system is released Monday, critics also cast doubt on whether the city of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water will present facts about the water supply project or simply advocate for it. The standing-room only meeting set the tone for what is certain to be the city's hottest debate for the next year.

"This was a not-so-subtle attempt to convince us that we must open up our wallets and accept degradation of the Monterey Bay sanctuary and that it is desal or nothing or we are going to suffer some overwhelming consequences," said Ron Pomerantz, a 2010 council candidate opposed to the proposal.

During a rare joint study session of the council and district board, water officials laid out supply threats that face both agencies, which rely solely on local sources and serve 135,000 customers from the North Coast to La Selva Beach. Severe rationing is predicted if the city is unable to tap a new source during droughts and the district cannot rest its aquifer for 20 years.

The city is totally reliant on rainwater, drawing from the San Lorenzo River, North Coast streams and some wells, and faces mandated cutbacks in diversions for fish habitat protection. The district pumps from overdrafted aquifers that are contributing to saltwater intrusion at the coast.

The agencies have proposed building a facility capable of stripping the salt from seawater and treating it to create up to 2.5 million gallons of drinking water each day. The city expects to use the plant on the city's Westside during the summer and fall months during dry years, while the district would otherwise typically run the plant at about half of its capacity every day.

The public will have 60 days to provide written comments on the long-delayed state-required environmental analysis of the facility and attend public hearings June 3 and July 1. The document will be amended before staff brings it to the council and district board for certification in early 2014.

Agency officials stressed the environmental analysis, several years in the making, will closely review a host of alternatives, such as conservation and increased storage, as well as impacts on marine life and energy use and ways to reduce the toll. Even if the two agencies approve the plans, voters and regulators from state and federal agencies will have the final word.

"No matter what we choose, our job now is to do our best to fully understand the ramification of the decision one way or another," Thomas LaHue, president of the district's board, said as he welcomed the audience. "We are just beginning our education process."

Former Santa Cruz County Supervisor Gary Patton, an anti-growth champion since the 1970s, chastised the city and its water director for being involved in the Cal Desal industry organization.

"You need to make sure you are really representing the public not the desal industry," Patton warned.

The city's environmental attorney, Jim Moose, warned that it is "very unusual to have projects that are utterly pristine and that are good for the environment in every respect." He said it is typical that environmental reports improve with comments from the public and regulators.

Santa Cruz resident Trink Praxel said she appreciated the investment in finding new water sources.

Nearly $14 million has been spent so far to explore desalination.

"Now it is our responsibility as members of the public to educate ourselves but not to have wishful thinking about what could resolve this," she said. "We can't believe that if we just change our lifestyle everything will be solved."

Follow Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmbrownreports

IF YOU GO

DESALINATION HEARINGS

WHAT: Public hearings to receive comments on the draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed seawater desalination plant

FIRST MEETING: 12-2:30 p.m. June 3, Best Western Seacliff Inn, 7500 Old Dominion Court, Aptos

SECOND MEETING: 6:30-9 p.m. July 1, First Congregational Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz

INFORMATION: www.scwd2desal.org

 

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