In the News

Desal opponents urge new citizen panel: Officials say public campaign is sufficient

By J.M. BROWN, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/22/11

SANTA CRUZ - A group opposed to building a desalination plant has asked the two water agencies developing the controversial project to appoint a citizen advisory panel designed to shake up a public information process critics see as one-sided and opaque.

Paul Gratz, a member of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, has urged a four-person task force made up of members of the Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District to discuss at its July 20 meeting the establishment of a citizen-customer advisory committee that would closely monitor how information about the proposal is publicly disseminated.

"The request is to open up the process," Gratz said. "The public deserves to be engaged."

Gratz is not likely to get what he wants.

Officials with both agencies say the task force is doing its job of keeping the public abreast of the process involved in explaining why a plant is necessary, how it will be designed and operated, and at what cost. They say a separate citizen committee to evaluate different points of view about desal would muddy the process of informing the public about why the city and district are pursuing desalination.

Santa Cruz City Vice Mayor Don Lane, who chairs the task force, said he will not support the call for a citizen panel.

"It's coming from a frustration that the desal task force continues to do its job and develop a plan for a desal facility - that's its mission, that's its function," Lane said. "If people don't want it to do that, the desal task force isn't the place to make that argument. That's with the City Council and the (Soquel Creek Water) District."

The two agencies, who serve a combined 140,000 customers, already have voted to study desalination, though a final decision on whether to build the plant won't be made until studies on energy use, environmental impacts and initial design work are completed. The creation of a facility that could transform up to 2.5 million gallons of seawater each day for potable use also is likely to go before voters, and even if endorsed at the ballot box, must still win approval from the California Coastal Commission.

"We are carrying out what the council asked," said Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher. "The truth needs to be out there, the scientific truth. That's what we're focusing on."

But opponents say fact-finding about the core reasons for desalination - to provide an additional, reliable water supply to combat drought and reduce surface water diversion to protect fish - has been heavily skewed. They have criticized the two agencies for budgeting $1.4 million during the past three years for a San Francisco contractor to conduct public outreach and other research - including time and materials for a host of meetings, advisories and a detailed website - they say promotes desalination rather than critically studying its pros and cons.

Opponents concerned that desalination will induce growth urge greater conservation to boost supply and say shrinking demand eliminates the need for desalination. And although the task force meets in public and takes down those kinds of sentiments from citizens, the panel has no citizen members to challenge arguments made by the water districts.

Desal critics have also raised questions about a Technical Working Group created recently by the task force to study ways to cut energy use. The group's upcoming workshop, made up of city and district officials as well as energy experts from Ecology Action and UC Santa Cruz, will meet in private.

"It's a very contained way of exclusion," Gratz said of the task force's efforts at public engagement. "We want more inclusion."

The total cost of a desal plant is unknown as it's still under study, but officials have said it could exceed $100 million.

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