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Flawed desal EIR is strike three

By Chris Krohn
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/22/13

The Santa Cruz mayor and the city manager recently acknowledged in an official press release that it is time to "reset" the community conversation on the city's proposed desalination project. Is this an administrative trick to temporarily erase desal from the agenda to insulate some who are running for political office? Or, is it an early season treat for the large number of community members who worked against desal and in favor of looking more seriously at water alternatives? Could desal really be taken off the table so quickly? At least $15 million has already been spent, and with a water director's reputation and legacy on the line, several questions still remain.

In the joint media statement, City Manager Martin Bernal and Mayor Hillary Bryant point to some of the major themes that emerged from the 400 community comments on the draft environmental impact report. The argument Bryant advances is that "we need a reset in the ongoing conversation on water supply and desal issues."

Bravo! She seems to be one of those rare public officials who gets it, one who is following when the community is out front leading. Mayor Bryant also wrote that our community "is not ready for desalination at this time." But isn't continuing to fund the EIR process still traveling down the desal path?

Bryant needs to use her mayoral bully pulpit to engage the council in the sausage-making of government and gather three additional votes to stop spending more citizen dollars on desal, and specifically cut off the money spigot for the flawed EIR process. The only way the city can show, corroborate, verify and substantiate this reconsidered position, and that it's not somehow a trick, is by immediately suspending work on this final EIR. Stopping the EIR now would create the political space the City Council and the community need to collaboratively debate and strategize about water policy solutions.

Suspending the EIR process would also mean no more payments to consultants Kennedy-Jenks, Circlepoint, Data Instincts or the URS Corporation. Perhaps this is a tall order, but it has to be done. The council can keep desal in the closet as an option if they wish, but continuing to spend money on the EIR makes no sense. If this defective EIR is certified, desal could be around for another 30 years!

It is important that a real community discussion begin in an atmosphere of trust around such issues as: water transfers; increasing funding to residents to help install drought-tolerant landscaping; permitting of composting toilets; using recycled water appropriately; revisiting the schedule of rigorous inspections of all hotels and motels to check their showerheads, low-flow toilets, and potential leaks; incorporating grey water systems into our building codes; and developing a programmatic plan for rainwater harvesting. The goal here is to provide the community a common set of choices for achieving water security.

It's baseball season and here is what the desal scorecard looks like:

  •  Strike one in the ill fated desal process was the 2012 winning Measure P vote with the community leading the council away from a financial and environmental brink.
  •  The mayor's reset statement on Aug. 20 was strike two.
  •  Suspending funding for the final EIR process would be the third and final strike for desalination. It's time now to move on to a clean page of conservation and water alternatives, and an active and engaged community is coming up to bat.

Chris Krohn, former Santa Cruz mayor, directs the internship program for the environmental studies department at UC Santa Cruz.

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