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Editorial

Kocher's legacy: Service and desal

By Sentinel Editorial Board, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/11/13

When it rains it pours.

Water over the dam.

All rivers lead to the sea.

Actually none of these hoary cliches apply to Bill Kocher, the soon-to-retire Santa Cruz water chief, who announced last week he'll be leaving city employ after 27 years on the job.

It hasn't been raining.

No major water-supply projects were built during Kocher's long tenure and the flow of rivers and creeks has been compromised in terms of fish habitat over the years.

Still, Kocher has been the face of water policies for Santa Cruz and Live Oak for a long, long time and for most of it has been a canny student of the political realities that have limited his ability to increase supply in the face of a growing population.

Fortunately -- for Kocher and the Santa Cruz Water Department's more than 90,000 customers -- folks around here are among the state's most miserly in terms of conserving water, which considering the sporadic nature of heavy rainfall seasons, has been a blessing.

But along with the local antipathy to increasing water supply -- a concept that for many years was anathema since it could lead to, gasp, growth -- came a curse of sorts. The specter of drought, always a contagion just waiting to afflict Californians, meant that Santa Cruz is often skirting on the edge of a water disaster that could afflict the local economy and curtail state-mandated expansion at UC Santa Cruz.

Kocher, at the behest of elected City Council members, then set out a course that would lead to a proposal to build a $129 million desalination plant in conjunction with Mid-County's Soquel Creek Water District.

That the plant, at first, was to be used only in severe drought conditions, however, did not mollify critics, who quickly made Kocher the poster boy for Big Desal, although we seriously doubt such a malefactor is lurking in the shadows of Water World.

Still, Kocher's leadership of a statewide desal advocacy group raised more than eyebrows at a time when public opinion seemed to be turning against the desal plant.

For his part, Kocher switched tactics midstream in the desal debate. Where the initial need was focused on solving supply shortages in seriously dry years, this changed to using the converted water to ease stream diversions to protect endangered and threatened fish.

While Kocher's desal advocacy -- and the water chief was always quick to point out he was only following council direction -- may have become a diversion of its own, the idea of building an expensive, energy-intensive plant near a residential neighborhood simply doesn't look to be politically palatable right now, no matter who is turning the spigot.

The city is the midst of finishing a final environmental analysis of the project, which would then go before the council for approval -- which, based on past votes, would likely move it along.

After that, it would go to voters, where the outcome appears far less favorable for pro-desal forces.

Knowing Santa Cruz's well-established reputation of delaying or stopping unwanted or unpopular projects, we wouldn't be surprised to see desal mothballed for a few years.

All of this probably muddies the water in evaluating Kocher's service to residents in a job that pays him well at $184,000 annually.

Knowing it was unlikely that any additional water development would occur in the city, he deftly managed the department through droughts and an earthquake. Through it all, Kocher -- who was not an engineer -- was an affable and quotable public servant who was able to lead customers, and journalists, through the often complicated maze of water infrastructure and water-related issues.

He'll leave with the fate of desal uncertain, at best -- but also with this: He never lost sight of the reality and challenges involved in providing enough water for Santa Cruzans. Whatever your opinion about desal, you can thank Bill Kocher for navigating these often choppy waters.

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