In the News


The argument for desal - Special report makes case for proceeding with costly plant

Sentinel Editorial Board
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/29/12

If you've been following the Sentinel's special report on desalination, you may be thinking something along the lines of, " wow, is this complicated. And expensive."

Or you may ask the same question that Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown, who has been working on this series for six months, asked in his introductory article to Deconstructing Desal:

"One of the biggest questions when evaluating whether the city of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District should build a $123 million desalination plant is whether they need to."

Well, do they?

Based on Brown's reporting and the work of other Sentinel staffers involved in this project, the answer depends on how you frame the debate.

If the question is, is there enough water available to supply the future needs of the 92,000 customers of the Santa Cruz Water Department and the nearly 38,000 Soquel Creek Water District customers, while solving a serious saltwater intrusion problem in the latter, and restoring fish habitat in local streams? We found there is not.

Please note the word: "available." While Santa Cruz County gets plenty of rainfall, much of the water moves to the ocean through streams and the San Lorenzo River.

If the question is: Are there viable alternatives? Based on our stories, it depends how you define "viable." Because based on the cost and the environmental and political realities governing building or creating more storage, the main alternative is more conservation.

Our reporting found that daily per-capita water consumption in Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek is well below both the state average and the target set for the Central Coast.

No doubt, greater conservation and policies such as increased water recycling would reduce the burden on water supply. But it simply isn't realistic, based on our research, to believe a majority of water users will increase their conservation even more.

So is desal worth it? That's a question most likely to be answered by voters, who will be faced with significantly higher water bills to pay both for the desal plant and improvements needed for both Santa Cruz water and Soquel Creek. The total cost, we found, is a staggering $300 million.

In an environmentally aware region, voters who support desal also will have to acknowledge that the energy use required to run a desal plant will be as much as 12 times higher than present use for treating ground and surface water supplies. Not only that, the plant could run more often for Santa Cruz than just in severe drought years -- and certain parts will be built with an expanded capacity to produce drinkable freshwater. This will further stoke longstanding fears that the additional water capacity will lead to more growth and development.

And that leads to another question lurking beneath the surface: Is desal just another means to supply more water to UC Santa Cruz, as the university grows in terms of student enrollment? Again, the context of this argument is important. UCSC has reduced its water use by 26 percent since 2003, even as enrollment has grown. Moreover, the city has agreed to supply the university with water for expanded housing, with conditions. The larger problem for the city will be in meeting demand and providing fish protection. So, in that context, yes, growth of any kind will exacerbate shortfalls in supply.

The Sentinel also found there are 17 desal projects proposed statewide, including nine for the Central Coast alone. Of these, three are proposed for the Monterey Peninsula, where water agencies must drastically reduce pumping from the Carmel River by 2017. The developer of the largest desal proposal says his Moss Landing plant could serve Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek at a significantly lower cost, while eliminating the need for multiple facilities, thus cutting down on overall energy use and environmental damages.

Is this idea viable? Bill Kocher, Santa Cruz's water director, said the regional plant wouldn't solve local problems fast enough to safeguard against drought and Soquel Creek's overdraft issues. Such a plant raises enough other questions, Kocher told the Sentinel, that it would be bad policy to wait for the right answers.

That's the dilemma. Should desal just get drowned in an endless debate and alternative trips upstream that lead essentially back to where we are today? Or should Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek water districts proceed as planned?

Based on our in-depth special report, and realizing that ratepayers may have the final say, we say they should.

See Deconstructing Desal in Santa Cruz

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