In the News

As We See It: Desal: Private meeting, public issue

Editorial, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/21/11

The idea of building a desalination plant to serve water customers in Santa Cruz and Mid-County has already engendered intense debate, pro and con.

Opponents say a desal plant is too costly, at the current estimate of $100 million, and unnecessary. They argue that more conservation and other methods are far more preferable -- and the energy use and environmental degradation make desal too wasteful to consider.

The anti-desal folks have gotten increasingly vociferous and organized in making their arguments. So it's understandable a local coalition favoring desal would want to get out its message without spending time fending off critics.

To do this, they decided to organize a private meeting for about 50 people on an invitation-only basis to hear from the top officials of the Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District, the two agencies that would operate the plant.

Desal opponents were unhappy to be left standing outside, making their own pitches to arriving guests, and touting their own public meeting to discuss how public money could be better spent.

There's nothing wrong with having a private meeting -- public officials meet fairly regularly out of the public eye, which is legal as long as they are not violating state open meeting laws. In addition, the salaried public officials who spoke at the meeting were not getting any additional, taxpayer-funded compensation for their appearance.

But in this case, we wonder if desal backers might have done their cause more harm than good. That's because the coalition is the brainchild of former Santa Cruz mayors and long-term council members Cynthia Mathews and Mike Rotkin. Both have been integrally involved in water issues for many years as elected officials.

In addition, Mathews has been prominently mentioned as considering yet another election bid for the Santa Cruz City Council.

Even though the two aren't elected officials at present, there is still a strong association in many people's minds between them and the people who used to work for them, namely Santa Cruz water staff.

So what was the purpose? Santa Cruz Water Director Bill Kocher and Soquel Creek General Manager Laura Brown didn't say anything new. Perhaps the organizers didn't want the presentation sullied by opponents who might have dissuaded the invited movers and shakers from going out and spreading a message about the benefits of desal.

That's a gamble. Not everyone there seemed convinced it's an open-and-shut case.

We don't question Mathews' and Rotkin's motives. Both believe desal is good public policy in terms of the local economy because it would help ensure a stable water supply.

But by keeping the meeting private, they further widened the sense of distrust among opponents.

To be fair, the city is planning a public desal forum. Meanwhile, an environmental report is in progress. Opponents, if history is a guide, will then file a legal challenge to the report. Santa Cruz history also shows that organized opposition has killed many a good idea.

Both sides have also talked about going to voters to see if they favor desal.

Then again, as Santa Cruz has learned the hard way on other projects, the state Coastal Commission -- as well as a whole cast of other regulators -- might be the final arbiters on whether a desal plant ever starts pumping locally.

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