In the News

Deconstructing Desal in Santa Cruz

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Posted: SantaCruzSentinel.com, 9/27/12

Desalination

Part 1: Desal basics

Part 2: The Details of Desal

  • How desal works: From ocean intake to pipeline to what happens at the plant and how water gets to customers, to how the brine is deposited in the ocean. Will pipes go through Westside neighborhoods.
  • Environmental impacts: We look at the various impacts and how the city and sitrict plan to mitigate them, including the energy it takes to run the plant.
  • What about the brine?: The work of Stanford university scientist Carol Reeb is catching the state's attention. She is not convinced that brine dispersal in the bay won't have cumulative effects on marine life. 
  • Wastewater recycling: The ever-changing field of wastewater recycling has potential for making it easier for water agencies to pursue the process, which is similar to desalination, without the brine.

Part 3: Choices on the Central Coast

  • Difficult choices: The pending EIR for the desal plant will turn partially on whether the city and Soquel Creek have adequately studied and pursued alternatives to the plant. They will argue that they have.
  • How conservation fits into the conversation: We take a look at Santa Cruz residents who are trying to achieve the kind of conservation the city says would have to take place during a really severe drought: Composting toilets, rainwater catchment systems, graywater reuse and more.
  • The upcoming vote: An explanation about the Nov. 6 desalination vote.
  • Comparing other Central Coast plants: Desalination has a long history, including existing or proposed plants in Sand City, Moss Landing and Seaside. But the history of desalination is mixed in California with Santa Barbara and Morro Bay having to moth ball expensive plants in the early 1990s due to energy costs.
  • Cambria: The tiny town of Cambria had debated the question of desalination for 20 years. The Coastal Commission continues to deny an opportunity to test desal.
What we found
  • The city and Soquel Creek have undeniable need to boost in supply and have looked at a host of alternatives that won’t create the amount of water needed. But greater conservation and water recycling hold potential for further reducing use.
  • It’s possible Santa Cruz will run the desalination plant more often than every six to seven years, as suggested. City officials have said they could use it whenever there is even a 5 percent cutback asked of customers. The city has requested such cutbacks twice since in the past three years.
  • Although desalination is more closely identified as a Santa Cruz project because the facility would be built there, the seriousness of Soquel Creek Water District’s saltwater intrusion, caused by overpumping groundwater, is fueling the urgency behind desalination. The district will use the plant most of the time and receive an equivalent amount of city water while desalinated water typically will be served to city customers.
  • In terms of the financial impact on ratepayers in coming years, the $123 million cost of constructing a desalination plant is just one aspect. Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District are planning a combined $176 million in other capital projects. Monthly rates for single-family residences with average water use are projected to increase by 47 percent in Santa Cruz and 128 percent in Soquel Creek Water District.
  • The annual costs for running the desalination plant will be $3 million to $5 million annually paid by ratepayers, and the costs for borrowing could be as high as $4 million annually for each water agency if they decide to sell bonds to finance the project.
  • Although desalinated water will provide just a portion of the water for Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek, the energy required to run the plant will be 7-12 times higher than required for the agencies to treat surface and groundwater supplies.
  • Fish regulators urging a reduction in diversions from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams won’t back desalination, saying supply decisions should be left to city leaders. California Fish and Game says the city can meet requested reductions in flow without augmenting supply.
  • The city says the flow that regulators want left in the river and streams for fish amounts to about 1 billion gallons every year on average, a figure that represents about a quarter of what the system is capable of producing in good years.
  • The argument that UC Santa Cruz growth is tied to desalination only carries weight when viewed as part of the larger problem the city has of meeting demand and fish protection flow levels in dry years. Growth of any kind will exacerbate shortfalls.
  • Endless debate can lead to problems like those seen in Cambria, where desalination has been pursued for 10 years and more than 600 property owners sit a water wait list. A moratorium and severe rationing are in store locally if a new supply isn’t identified.

Also see:

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