In the News

A Few Thoughts on the Local Desalination Debate

By Don Lane
Commentary: Santa Cruz Patch 9/30/11

I want to acknowledge the recent successes of the local opponents of desalination. There is real skill required in effective political opposition in Santa Cruz and the desalination opponents have been performing well.

Here’s what they’ve accomplished:

1) They’ve convinced a lot of people that local water agencies are not doing an adequate job of encouraging water conservation.  They do not seem to be troubled by the fact that the City Water Department and the Soquel Creek Water District have some of the most successful water conservation programs and outcomes in the country.  They don’t seem to be aware that they might insult both the community and those working directly on conservation by dismissing extraordinarily successful water conservation efforts that are already in place.

2) They’ve made it seem sinister for a private organization to have a meeting in a room that the private organization rented with private funds.   Of course, desal opponents have held meetings with public officials and did not open those meetings to the public. It seems the only difference is that no one thought to make a stink about it.

3) They repeat certain messages and some of their claims have taken hold.  It seems only a minor inconvenience for them that a substantial amount of their information is incorrect.

A good example is the incorrect claim that the local desal project will pump super salty brine into our local ocean waters.  It is well-known among those who are paying attention to the local project plans that it will mix the desal brine with treated wastewater that is already flowing into the ocean now—and that this blended stream will match the normal salinity of the ocean.

 Another example is the claim that having a desal plant will raise water rates by 40 or 50 percent.  I guess they hope no one will realize that they just made this claim up out of thin air.

4) They have presented a compelling water use chart to demonstrate that our community doesn’t need any new water supply—even in severe drought years.

  This chart is so persuasive because they omit a key piece of information: that the City is about to lose many hundreds of millions of gallons of water supply each year to protect endangered species. (Next time you see that chart, ask the presenter why they left that number out of the chart.)

5) They have many people in the community believing we can make a good decision about the desal proposal before the completion of the Environmental Impact Report.

This is quite an accomplishment in a community that cares deeply about our natural environment and looks to the environmental review process to discern the real impacts of a project.  Of course, their approach makes sense.

They can more easily make unsubstantiated environmental claims now.  Once an EIR is done, their creative “facts” will be displaced by actual facts that are determined by the rigorous public and data-driven EIR process.

6) Perhaps their greatest accomplishment is to generate some feeling in the community that the interagency task force studying a local desalination project (of which I am a member) is acting in sinister ways.

Here’s how they’ve done that:  they widely disseminate a substantial amount of faulty information.  Then the Desal Task Force responds thoroughly and publicly with correct information.  Then the desal opponents complain that the Desal Task Force is spending too much money on public information.

This is a fabulous political trick: Create a problem requiring the public agency to respond and then criticize the agency for having the nerve to allocate resources to respond.

In case anyone has forgotten—and clearly some have—our community has gotten to this point on desal because of more than 20 years of study and public debate and formal public decisions at public meetings.  This public process has considered virtually every idea that desal opponents have suggested.

Here’s the big surprise: the process embraced almost all of their suggestions.  Aggressive conservation: Adopted.  Use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigation: Approved and being developed.  Water transfer from Santa Cruz to the Soquel Water District: the city council agreed to cooperate in exploring this.  Rebates for turf removal: Adopted.  Grey water re-use: Adopted.

I see only three significant policy disagreements between desal opponents and desal supporters.  The first is whether or not we have enough water in our current supplies to meet the community’s needs (in terms of drought protection in Santa Cruz area and in terms of saltwater intrusion into freshwater wells in the mid-county area).

If we don’t build a desal facility, can we squeeze by with significant cutbacks or will we suffer significant environmental (tainted groundwater) and economic damage?

The second is whether something that uses energy at the level of a desalination facility can be accepted by the community.  Can the energy use and the attending carbon footprint of a desal operation be kept at a reasonable level and properly mitigated?

The desal opponents seem to argue they cannot.  The scientists and regulators seem to suggest they can. It is worth noting that the proposed desal facility will use about the same amount of electricity as Dominican Hospital uses.

Yes, a desal facility will use a significant amount of energy but it does not seem to be out of scale with other facilities in our community.

The third is whether the cost is acceptable to ratepayers. Since the actual cost to ratepayers is not known at this time (though there are both data-based estimates and wild guesses floating around in the public discourse), I will be so bold as to say that we should discern that cost before deciding if it is too expensive or not.

I suspect that these three key issues will determine the community’s decision on moving to construction.  And the jury is still out on every one of them.  Neither the Soquel Creek Water District nor the City of Santa Cruz have given the green light to building a desal facility—they have simply approved moving through a thorough environmental review process and all the studies, design work and public engagement activities necessary to complete that process and determine the cost.

I hope the jury will wait till all the evidence is presented before reaching a verdict. 

(By the way, there's a wealth of good information at the Desal Task Force website: scwd2desal.org/ ) 

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