In the News

Editorial

Money down the drain

By Sentinel Editorial Board
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/10/13

Just guessing, but there probably aren't too many towns in America where a big and spirited crowd would turn out to discuss a mammoth draft environmental report.

But, then again, Santa Cruz isn't like too many other places.

The debate over whether to proceed -- complete -- the document was the main topic of interest Tuesday evening before the Santa Cruz City Council.

The council heard from opponents of a proposed desalination plant that they should deep-six an environmental impact report, since, clearly, the very premises of the report are no longer relevant.

This same debate has been taking place on the Sentinel opinion pages, where at least one influential planning and environmental advocate urges the council to complete the EIR, if only to answer the questions that arose during the public comment period. But desal opponents, by now legion, have responded by saying the real issue is finding alternatives to desal, not in continuing to waste public money on a flawed premise.

Desal has had one perhaps unforeseen outcome -- reigniting the city's environmental-progessive coalition that has long determined whether growth and development will proceed in Santa Cruz.

But here's the real story: Desal for all intents and purposes is as dead as the brine that would have been produced by the proposed $140 million facility.

At least in its present configuration.

Don't be fooled by the term "reset" being bandied about concerning the process; that's just government bureaucratic speak for "we know this isn't gonna happen anytime soon with this much opposition built up." The writing was on the wall -- in pretty big letters -- a year ago when 73 percent of voters indicated they were opposed to desal in a ballot measure that didn't say that, but whose meaning was inescapable. Completing the EIR would simply give the city the legal foundation to someday resurrect desal, opponents say, making something of a travesty of a fair-minded examination of alternatives.

The squash-the-EIR contingent thinks that effort and money should go to further explore alternative conservation, to reduce overall water usage and waste. While Santa Cruz water users are already more conservation-minded than most Californians, this group believes more can be done. We doubt if the local business community -- especially the restaurant industry -- shares this outlook.

What this group also wants to see is an exploration of how multiple water districts could connect water distribution pipes. If Scotts Valley, San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz all networked with Soquel Creek water, for instance, the aggregate water could help solve the Mid-County district's dropping water table, which would also help fight saltwater intrusion.

Certainly, no one would dare suggest additional water storage or supply. Nor has there been much enthusiasm for a plan coming out of Moss Landing, where scientist/entrepreneur Brent Constanz has proposed a regional deep water desal facility that would seem to answer many of the financial and environmental concerns swirling about the Santa Cruz plant.

We realize $15 million has already been spent on planning for desal. But the politics, cost and environmental issues that together caused the city of Santa Cruz, and the council, to at least reframe the desal debate show that spending another $300,000 to answer questions about a desal plant that probably never will be built would be money flushed down the toilet.

There's plenty of alternative ideas bubbling to the surface. The "reset" should be on how to collect these, let them percolate and recharge the debate.

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