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Unlocking lessons from Santa Barbara's desal boondoggle for Santa Cruz voters

By Paul Gratz
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/6/12

The Sentinel's "Deconstructing Desal" series briefly mentions Santa Barbara's foray into desal, yet omits the relevant points for Santa Cruz residents preparing to vote on Measure P, the right to vote on desal.

In 1992, Santa Barbara built the country's first publicly owned seawater desal plant as the ultimate insurance policy against a once-in-a-century drought. Although a feasibly study determined that the 12 million gallons per day plant would not be used even if a drought occurred similar to the worst on record (1951-1956).

After the $34 million plant completed start-up tests, rains filled the reservoirs and robust conservation and best management practices kicked in. Next, water rates were raised in response to the plant's high construction costs and alternative supplies were developed at half the price of desal.

The cost of keeping the facility on standby status was $775,000 annually. Subsequently, the "pioneering plant" was mothballed and decommissioned at a cost of $772,000. Finally, the key components were sold for 60 percent of the original sale price to a Saudi Arabian company to raise revenue -- without a single drop of desal water ever entering the system.

Even so, Santa Barbara residents continue to pay $100,000 annually to store the factory's carcass -- a boondoggle reminder of no matter how great desal's promise, costs and changing circumstances militate against achieving success. Today, it would cost more than $18 million and take 18 months to reactivate the idle plant from the time of approval of any required permits.

Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara share some important similarities: university-resort towns economically and dependent on tourism, education, service sector employment, and real estate. Santa Barbara, however, has a larger population, a drier Mediterranean climate, lacks a river and stream watershed and is not a national marine sanctuary area.

Engineer Jerry Paul debunked the fear-mongering myth -- long promulgated by officials -- that our region has a water shortage problem in his May 6, 2012, Sentinel column "Putting desalination into perspective." He states, "Our actual water problem is the lack of infrastructure to store enough winter river water -- our major source -- to boost the health of our fish populations and aquifers, while seeing us comfortably through summers and occasional droughts.

"Let's simply call the proposed desal plant's annual capacity 'one desal,' or 2790 acre-feet. The San Lorenzo River's average yearly output is 34 desals. Including nearby streams we average 44 desals -- 44 times the desalination plant capacity!"

Perhaps, the key lesson learned about pursuing elaborate desal development is problems result when government officials -- without a mandate from voters and ratepayers -- only follow a single water policy track.

Currently, California's water districts are re-examining, postponing or abandoning plans for seawater desal and are asking: How much are we willing to pay environmentally and financially for new water?

Santa Cruz's "expandable" regional desal locomotive left the station on a fast track $14 million ago and without leaving the community with a Plan B. Passing Measure P on Nov. 6 will enable citizens and officials to work together to redirect money away from the proposed $300 million desal plant system toward a set of less costly and less damaging alternatives: stronger conservation, water transfers, recycling and water neutral growth.

Paul Gratz is a longtime Santa Cruz resident and a retired health educator and planner. He co-authored Measure P.

 

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