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Letting the amateurs take their turn

Op-Ed, Water Desalination Report, 10/20/14

This newspaper is unaware of a proposed seawater desalination project—especially such a modestly sized  project—that has undergone a more deliberate and  transparent development, permitting and design process than  the one jointly undertaken by the city of Santa Cruz and the  Soquel Creek Water District (SCWD) over the past ten years.

The city began to consider BWRO in the mid-1990s and initiated an SWRO pilot process in mid-2004. An Integrated Water Plan program EIR certified in 2005 identified SWRO \ as a potential water supply. During the same meeting that the EIR was certified, the city council awarded a consulting firm a $3.2 million contract to conduct a SWRO pilot study. The study was completed in early 2009 and a year later, a  consultant was hired to prepare a 30 percent design contract  for a full-scale 2.5 MGD (9,462 m3/d) SWRO plant.

Later, an environmental consultant was hired to prepare an EIR for a full-scale, 2.5 MGD (9,462 m3/d) SWRO project, marine biologists were hired to conduct intake and outfall studies, environmental lawyers were hired to assist with permitting, a communication consultant was hired to oversee public outreach and a project website was launched (www.scwd2desal.org).

When the project EIR was completed in 2013, it included an environmental analysis of three alternative plant sites, eight alternative seawater intake sites and the eight alternative projects, five of which were non-desal projects. The EIR concluded that the proposed regional SWRO project was the most viable.

To ensure all stakeholders had sufficient time to participate, the public comment period was extended twice.

Yet, last August, Santa Cruz officials announced that they had decided not to recommend a 2014 vote on the project, with the mayor stating, “The Santa Cruz community is not ready for desalination at this time.” Meanwhile, the SCWD officials expressed concern that the city was facing a water crisis, cautioning, “This is not a problem that can wait much longer for a solution.”

Despite the continued concern over water, and apparently ignoring a decade of studies undertaken by a highly qualified professional services firm, the city council decided to turn this complex and very technical issue over to a volunteer Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC). One of the WSAC’s citizen members’ first moves was to call for a Water Supply Convention during which the public was invited to “share their ideas for reducing water demand and increasing supply.”

At last Thursday’s convention, 45 different public projects were displayed to nearly 300 attendees. The projects vying for consideration over the proposed SWRO project included composting toilets in public venues, concrete storage basins that double as skateboard parks, ocean energy, water neutral development and atmospheric water generators. Among the more reasonable solutions proposed were numerous reuse projects similar to those considered in the 2013 EIR, but considered to be less feasible than seawater desalination.

Among the projects on display was one proposed by the Sustainable Water Coalition of Santa Cruz. Its group supports the “realistic, fact-based approach” taken by the city and SCWD, and recommends seawater desalination as the best strategy for a reliable water supply.

Is Santa Cruz ready for such a revolutionary idea?

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