In the News

State's high court denies Santa Cruz's appeal in UCSC water case

By J.M. Brown
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/13/13

SANTA CRUZ -- The state Supreme Court declined Wednesday to review a lower court ruling that invalidated an environmental evaluation of expanding water and sewer service to UC Santa Cruz.

The high court provided no reason for turning down a request by the university and the city of Santa Cruz that challenged a February ruling by the 6th District Court of Appeal. A three-judge appellate panel ordered changes to a environmental impact report approved by the Santa Cruz City Council in 2010.

The case will be returned to Santa Cruz County Superior Court -- whose original decision in favor of the city and UCSC was overturned by the appellate court -- to be finalized. The court also will hear motions to award legal fees to Habitat and Watershed Caretakers as ordered by the appellate court.

"At this point, the only option we have is to fix the EIR," City Attorney John Barisone said. "The defects identified by the Court of Appeal are readily fixable, but I don't know if the council wants to do that."

Barisone said he can't consult with the council until its next meeting on June 25. Even then, the city's next steps may not be clear because the university lawyer assigned to fight the habitat group's suit is unavailable until June 24, Barisone said.

The city and university applied four years ago to the Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission to expand the city's water and sewer service to 374 acres of undeveloped land north of the main UCSC campus. The university and city agreed to apply to LAFCO as part of a 2008 settlement agreement that limited growth to 19,500 students by 2020 and required more campus housing.

The appellate court ruled that, under a state environmental law, the city and university should have provided LAFCO with an alternative for approving less water than originally sought. The city argued it already had determined a lesser amount would not satisfy terms of the settlement agreement.

The environmental report must be recertified by the City Council and university administration before LAFCO can resume its review.

"The city argues that our water supply is in a precarious state to justify their quest for a desalination plant," Don Stevens, a representative for the habitat group, said in an email. "The city should be truthful and consistent in what they are doing; abandon their irresponsible and unpopular quest to facilitate unrestrained UCSC growth by deciding not to pursue another EIR; allow the public to have a say; and pursue an environmentally sustainable path."

Stevens said his group's legal fees could exceed $200,000. Barisone said the city spent $154,000 fighting the suit prior to the Supreme Court filing, which could cost an additional $20,000.

The city and a neighboring water agency have proposed building a seawater desalination plant to battle drought and rest groundwater aquifers. The additional amount of water requested by UCSC is 2 percent of overall projected city demand in 2020 and the university has agreed to offset the use by paying for conservation off campus.

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