In the News

Plan B a sound alternative to desal

By Rick Longinotti
Commentary, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/21/11

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" J.M. Keynes

Today there are many reasons to re-evaluate a decision made in 2003 to pursue desalination to address our water challenges.

Water demand in Santa Cruz has dropped 30 percent since 2000.

Estimates for constructing the desal plant have quadrupled since 2003.

The current California PUC estimate for the proposed Monterey desal plant is $19,640 per million gallons. For comparison, the 2003 cost "to transmit and treat 1 million gallons of water from Loch Lomond" was $170.

According to a city report, desal will consume 13 times the amount of energy per gallon as our current water supply. The dangers of increased fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions are more evident now than in 2003.

The elements of a Plan B for addressing our water challenges are emerging from the efforts of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, Surfrider Foundation, Ecological Landscaping Association and other community groups. At Monday's City Water Commission meeting, we will propose a series of measures for the city's 5-year Water Management Plan.

A key feature of Plan B is a water-neutral development policy. With such a policy, any new development would offset new water demand by funding retrofits in existing buildings and landscapes. The policy would incentivize the construction of efficient buildings. These policies have been adopted by the East Bay MUD, and Soquel Creek Water District. A new LAFCO policy will require that UC Santa Cruz expansion be "water-negative" result in "a net decrease in impacts on water resources".

If the city were to adopt water-neutral growth, its prediction of 500 million gallons growth in water demand by 2030 would drop to zero. If Soquel Creek District can set a conservation goal to achieve an 8 percent reduction in water demand by 2030, why can't Santa Cruz?

Another Plan B strategy is regional water transfers. The City Council recently instructed the Water Department to investigate this option. According to a county study, an average of 800 acre feet of San Lorenzo River water is available to neighboring districts each year. The amount of available water could be considerably higher if water treatment facilities are upgraded to treat turbid water and improvements are made to the North Coast infrastructure. In return, Santa Cruz would receive water from neighboring districts during drought.

If Santa Cruz residents continue to conserve water, the desalination proposal will be obsolete. In the last two years Santa Cruz residential use has averaged under 60 gallons per person per day, resulting in a total water demand of 3.1 billion gallons. This is only 13 percent above the Water Department's calculation of the amount of water available in a worst-case drought, which happened once in 90 years. So long as we continue our water conserving ways, our drought security is intact. And we can keep it that way by requiring growth to be water-neutral.

The City Council has the opportunity to put further expenditures for desalination on hold $12 million on studies to date, shared with Soquel Creek while it adopts water-neutral growth, a transfer agreement with neighboring districts, and puts more financial resources into conservation such as water-efficient toilets in all apartment buildings, graywater and rainwater systems, and California-friendly landscapes.

Rick Longinotti is co-founder of DesalAlternatives.org. The Monday, Aug. 22 City Water Commission meeting is at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 809 Center St., Santa Cruz.

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