In the News


Solution became the problem

By Sentinel Editorial Board, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/21/13

With the city of Santa Cruz pulling back on plans for a seawater desalination plant, the question is, what now? Is desal dead or just in a waterless hibernation?

In a meeting with the Sentinel Editorial Board on Tuesday, city officials stressed they plan to do a better job of informing and hearing from the community about the city's need for a reliable backup water supply.

Then again, they could hear from water customers they don't ever want a desal plant, which, in effect, is what many have been saying over the past year -- at least those who are engaged on the issue.

Mayor Hilary Bryant said she recognizes the Santa Cruz community is "not ready" to support a $129 million desal plant, even though the specter of a drought-exacerbated water shortage is very real and still must be addressed. Ratepayers, she said, need to have a greater voice in finding a solution to the multiple issues raised by water-supply concerns.

To be clear, city officials recognized they need more time to build support for desal and made a politically tough decision to delay the project. Still, it won't be easy. Asked if the public's concern over public safety issues in Santa Cruz has spilled over into a distrust of government in general in the city, Bryant and Assistant City Manager Tina Shull, among others, said they don't see that. Shull, however, said the city manager's office needs to get more involved in the community discussion over water issues -- whenever those discussions are renewed.

But for now, desal is decommissioned.

The handwriting was on the wall last year when opponents were able to win a vote that simply required a future vote on the issue -- even though the City Council had already agreed to put desal before residents. But, considering the tide of public sentiment, especially evident after a $1.6 million environmental report on the project was released earlier this year for public review and comment, the chance of winning a vote in 2014 had dwindled.

The announced and impending retirement of city water chief Bill Kocher earlier this month was widely viewed as a concession that desal was not going to happen anytime soon, even though the water director has stated publicly his stepping down was driven by turning 65 and not because he had become the face of a flailing desal proposal.

In the Editorial Board meeting, Kocher and others said they felt they had provided a solution for a problem residents still don't accept, and he said advocates have done a "lousy job" in conveying the problem.

Perhaps, but over the almost a decade or so desal has been on the horizon -- and after Santa Cruz and partnering Soquel Creek Water District have spent nearly $15 million studying and discussing a plant -- it's not as if the proposal was somehow hidden from public view.

Clearly, however, it galvanized opponents, some of whom came from the enviromentalist community, others who were familiar anti-growth partisans, while still others objected to a plant because the city was on the hook to provide more water for UC Santa Cruz. The reality, however, is that organized opposition almost always spells the death knell for projects in Santa Cruz, and desal had plenty of organized opponents.

The final blows that made desal a nonstarter at least for next year came when neighborhood residents objected to the location of a pumping station. As it is, 400 detailed comments were filed over the environmental report, and the city plans to answer each and every one, which could take another six to 12 months. Which means the City Council won't even get the report to certify for at least that long. And even then, certifying the report doesn't mean approving a desal project.

That might take a drought, or an uproar by customers over further water restrictions or rationing, or higher monthly bills, or skyrocketing hook-up fees -- all of which are happening in the Soquel Creek district, which now has to wait on desal or start working on other alternatives.

Water, clearly, is not the issue galvanizing local residents and we have to agree, without wanting it to happen, that it will take a severe shortage or shortfall to turn around public opinion. But even then, desal may never be a Santa Cruz solution.

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