In the News


Desal and San Diego

By Sentinel Editorial Board, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 6/29/13

Water customers in Santa Cruz and Mid-County get a second chance Monday to make comments on a draft environmental report for the proposed desalination plant that water officials say is needed to provide emergency drought relief, correct overdrafting and lead to better stream flow to protect fish. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz.

The plant continues to be hotly debated within the community because of the potential costs, environmental objections and the local suspicion of anything that might be conducive to growth -- whether at UC Santa Cruz, or in the form of more development.

So far, the opposing voices seem to be drowning out pro-desal arguments, at least based on public comments regarding the $115 million proposal to create a new water supply for Santa Cruz and neighboring Soquel Creek Water District.

The local project is not the only one in the pipeline in coastal California. And it's a scaled-down version of the massive plant being assembled in Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County.

The Carlsbad desalination plant, billed as the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere, will cost $1 billion to build and is expected to be producing potable water for San Diego County by 2016. Once completed, Carlsbad is expected to provide about 7 percent of San Diego County's water, or some 50 million gallons a day.

The Santa Cruz plant would produce about 2.5 million gallons of potable water a day. Carlsbad will use a technology called reverse osmosis where seawater is pumped through a membrane with tiny holes that reject almost all of the salt, as well as bacteria and other organisms that might mar the quality of the water produced.

Despite the obvious differences in size, cost and planned uses, the Carlsbad desal plant bears study for backers of the Santa Cruz facility.

It was first proposed two decades ago, and the permitting process has dragged on for years, amid lawsuits.

Now, however, the concrete foundation has been poured. And yet, the plant still faces hurdles. Environmentalists seem poised to raise new challenges, over the energy the plant will require and over the effects on the surrounding marine habitat.

But the plant will take a huge amount of electricity to run -- about 40 megawatts of energy, or enough power for 26,000 homes.

Carlsbad will require about 300 million gallons of seawater a day and environmentalists say the intake process and brine disposal could harm fish, ocean organisms and ocean plants.

Sound familiar? Carlsbad's plant will cost about $50 million a year to operate. Santa Cruz officials are still working out the cost range for the local plant.

Opponents to the Carlsbad plant cite alternatives well known in Santa Cruz County, including more conservation measures (Santa Cruz County already conserves far more water than the state average), or collecting storm water for reuse -- or treating so-called "graywater" after it leaves a sewage treatment plant.

Ratepayers in San Diego County, who already pay an average of $72 month for water, would see their bills go up by $5-$7 a month (Santa Cruz desal backers have cited a similar figure), although critics say some customers in rural areas will see much larger increases to help defray the costs of desal.

Unlike Santa Cruz County, San Diego is a relatively arid region, with a huge population, including military bases and a booming business sector, all of which add to the demand on the water supply. The dream of desal in San Diego County was born during a five-year drought 20 years ago, after which many residents and business owners vowed they would never again be in a position where water availability dwindled so drastically.

Santa Cruz County has had terrible droughts as well, and we're currently in another dry spell that is leading to a new round of water restrictions.

Despite the objections and problems, so far the Carlsbad plant has survived, perhaps because people haven't forgotten what did happen -- and what can happen again.

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