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The public has to be part of the desal decision

By Chris Krohn
Special to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/9/13

It's October 1997, and the Santa Cruz City Council is discussing the old "Beach and South of Laurel (BSOL) plan" in front of a packed chamber. The overwhelming number of community members present is either against the plan, or wants the council to take more time in deciding on such a huge development issue. The council passes the plan by a series of 5-2 votes. Only Katherine Beiers, and then-Mayor Celia Scott, vote no. A wave of political activism breaks out in Surf City. One month later a City Council election takes place, and two months later the newly elected council sends BSOL to the large graveyard of projects embraced by developers and later rejected by the community.

What really rankled residents in those long-ago meetings was that certain council members seemed to accuse the public of entering the discussion too late. Decisions had been made, council members said, and where were you? The BSOL plan called for knocking down several houses in Beach Flats, realigning Third Street to make way for a couple of new rides, and providing thousands of square feet of new retail space along Beach Street. They hoped even a steroidal conference hotel at the site of the La Bahia would be built. Ah, the good old days.

Fast-forward to today and a similar power struggle is emerging: to desal or not to desal? Who is really behind this question? During the BSOL process the big financial player was the Boardwalk, led by the tight-fisted, and tight-lipped, Charlie Canfield. The entity that stands to gain big-time in the $100 million-plus Santa Cruz desalination decision is a current movement for university growth and city growth seeking public permission and investment. A potential for economic gain is what drives the desal project. And why exactly is a monster company located in San Francisco, named URS Corp., helping steer this process in a place like Santa Cruz? According to the URS website they have built "more than 200 coal-fired projects and more than 300 oil- or gas-fired combustion turbine-generating units "... worldwide."

The public can now get its turn to be heard through California's unique environmental process. The Draft Environmental Impact Report, or DEIR, is out and open for inspection and comment by the public. The desal plant EIR is mandated under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. That process has been discussed recently in these opinion pages as if the DEIR is a final copy, a done deal. It is not. The writer's argument seemed to be that since all impacts can be mitigated, according to the water department's consultants who wrote the DEIR, then there will be "no significant impacts" to the environment. But what is missed here is that the EIR is a process that by law includes the public, and these issues cannot be handled in closed session or in a council sidebar conversation.

The EIR process has actual teeth and can produce noteworthy outcomes, but only if the public gets involved. Residents have the opportunity to raise questions and challenge the "significance" of various "findings." Suggested alternatives must be considered and addressed in the final EIR. Every comment made by a member of the public is to be taken seriously.

Now is the time to submit your questions and comments. The CEQA process affords all members of the public a voice right now in whether this community truly needs a desalination plant near the wharf, or on the far Westside, or anywhere else. Now is the time that the public has to make its voice known and help guide the process in shaping our community's water future. Are there alternatives to desalination that the DEIR has not fully analyzed? This community has done great things collectively in the past -- restored the Del Mar Theatre, preserved Lighthouse Field from development, voted to create a greenbelt, and build a Tannery Arts Center. We can and will figure out how to preserve and enhance our water sources, but only if the people are involved.

Chris Krohn is a former mayor of Santa Cruz and currently directs the internship program for the Department of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz.

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/opinion/ci_23419911/chris-krohn-public-has-be-part-desal-decision

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