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Opinion

Real 'reset' need for desal discussion

By Gary Patton
Special to the Sentinel, 10/05/13

The Draft Environmental Impact Report on the proposed desalination project drew over 400 comments. "Responsible agencies," like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and NOAA Fisheries, found that the Draft EIR was deficient, particularly in its failure to consider alternatives.

After the EIR comment period closed Aug. 12, Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant and City Manager Martín Bernal issued statements. Bernal said, "The City of Santa Cruz clearly needs to redefine how we are engaging with the community." Mayor Bryant called for a "reset" in the community conversation. When the council meets to consider this matter, it should do just what the mayor and city manager advised. That means, however, that the Council must reject calls to "complete" the EIR.

If the city truly wants to "reset" the conversation (which is a good idea) the city should not be "completing" an EIR on their proposed desalination project. The only purpose of a completed EIR is to act as the legal foundation for the approval of the project analyzed in that document. EIRs are done on specific projects. The current EIR is on the proposed desalination project. If the city truly wants to consider alternatives (and that is what a "reset" means), then it would be totally contradictory to "complete" an EIR on the proposed desalination plant. The only reason to "complete" the EIR on the desalination project would be to provide the city with a legal basis to forge ahead with that very project.

The council will have zero credibility if it claims to be considering alternatives, but nonetheless spends $150,000 or more to "complete" the EIR. The "normal" thing that happens after the close of the comment period on a Draft EIR is that the agency preparing the EIR "completes" it by responding to the comments received. If this is what the city decides to do, there isn't any "reset" in the conversation; there is just an obvious confirmation that the council plans to push ahead with its "I know better than you" approach.

Responding to concerns and "comments" raised by desal critics does not have to be associated with "completing" the EIR. Developing "information" about water supply alternatives doesn't have to be associated with completing the EIR. The city definitely needs to respond to the concerns and comments of the community, and to develop more information about alternatives. That is what a "reset" would be all about. But to file official "responses to comments," and to "complete the EIR," has a very specific legal significance. Completing the EIR means that the final document can be used to approve the proposed desal plant. This is not the context in which the City should be responding to comments and concerns and providing more information.

Once an EIR is "complete," it can be relied upon as the basis for a project approval for long periods into the future. Thirty-year-old EIRs have sometimes been found sufficient.

If the City Council really wants to start a new conversation about water planning (and I hope it does), it needs to make sure that the conversation is a "two-way" conversation, not a "one-way" conversation. Efforts to "complete" the EIR don't fit into the "two-way" conversation concept. "Completing" the EIR will simply show that the Council is determined to provide itself with the legal foundation to approve the very same project it initially proposed.

Respond to concerns? Yes. Develop more information? Yes. But do it in the context of a true "reset." Don't try "completing" the EIR." A "reset" and "completing the EIR" are mutually exclusive.

Gary Patton served on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors from 1975 to 1995. He is the legal counsel for the Community Water Coalition, which made extensive comments on the Draft EIR.

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