In the News


Must agree on the problem before seeking the solution

By Fred Keeley, Special to the Sentinel, 8/25/13

Early last week, the city of Santa Cruz announced suspension of efforts to move forward on a controversial desalination plant, and promised to bring forth a community-involvement plan "to craft a clear vision for the future of Santa Cruz's water supply." A key question for the city is this: How can we achieve that clear vision?

It seems that while there is a near consensus that the process for moving the proposed desalination project along was deeply flawed, there is a more fundamental reason that the suspension became necessary. There is no agreement in the city of Santa Cruz regarding what problem the desalination plant was trying to solve.

A Sentinel article by J.M. Brown on this topic was headlined "Desal in Santa Cruz: Solution came before understanding problem." No disagreement with that headline, but the flaw is really deeper. It is more than understanding the problem, it is agreeing on the problem.

In the Soquel Creek Water District, a potential business partner with the city on the desalination plant, there is absolute clarity and agreement as to the problem they are trying to solve: Groundwater overpumping that has led to serious seawater intrusion.

In the city of Santa Cruz there is no such clarity nor agreement as to the problem, thus making it impossible to have agreement on a solution.

Theories abound as to the "real reason" the city was pursuing the desal project. One theory was that it is a covert effort to allow UC Santa Cruz to expand. Another was that it is a ploy by development interests to have ratepayers pay for their development notions. Yet another was that it is actually what the city said it was for, which is drought protection for everyone. In the absence of a consensus, people rightfully fill in the blank with their best thoughts as to motives of the project proponents -- good or bad.

When I had the privilege of representing our community in the California Assembly, it was a standing order in the office that we would introduce no legislation (solution) unless there was absolute agreement as to the problem we were trying to fix. Of the thousands of individual bills in the Legislature, there are hundreds and hundreds each year that appear to be solutions in search of problems. Mercifully, most of those meet a timely demise in their first policy committee hearing (but not all!).

Being certain that there is agreement as to the problem is not always easy. But it is the necessary predicate to a discussion of selecting solution options. When the topic is water, either in our wonderful town or on a statewide basis, such an agreement can be annoyingly evasive. As Mark Twain famously said, "Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over."

The task facing the city of Santa Cruz is not to use this re-set to inform, persuade or otherwise convince people of any particular solution, but to set forth a process for reaching broad agreement on the precise nature of the problem that all solutions will be measured against. Such a process must be open, honest, data-driven and, above all, deeply honorable.

With such a process designed to seek consensus on the problem, then we have a fighting chance as a community to move to real problem-solving. Let's wish each other good luck.

Fred Keeley is the elected county treasurer, and formerly represented the Monterey Bay area in the California Assembly from 1996 to 2002. He can be reached at

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