In the News

Desal advocates, opponents square off: Council study session becomes stage for debate

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/2/11

SANTA CRUZ - Advocates for building a desalination plant to supplement the city's water sources during a serious drought squared off Tuesday against opponents who say Santa Cruz should take several immediate steps to boost supply for people and fish rather than construct an expensive plant.

A City Council special study session Tuesday to review updates to the Integrated Water Plan passed in 2005 became a proxy debate for desalination as a coalition headed by former mayors sought to convince the council to continue its pursuit of the project.

Meanwhile, Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives renewed its call for the council to stop spending money on the project. No vote was expected to be taken.

Mike Rotkin, who along with fellow former mayor Cynthia Mathews is a leader in the Sustainable Water Coalition, told council members providing suitable water for the community rested on the ability to augment supply during the worst dry periods. He said desalination critics are overly optimistic about the city's ability to increase conservation and draw water from other sources to make up for severe shortfalls.

"I don't want us to be optimistic in a way that threatens water security," Rotkin said.

Rick Longinotti, a founder of Desal Alternatives, urged the council to pursue a water-neutral growth policy for future development, undertake water transfers with other agencies and offer more incentives for residents and businesses to conserve.

Longinotti noted that water demand is down sharply from projections made in 2005, a point water officials don't deny. But the Water Department is now engaged in negotiations with state and federal officials to reduce diversions from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams, key habitat for endangered fish species.

Recent rate hikes, less development than projected and a loss of several major businesses have shrunk demand, but water officials say the city could still fall short in supply by 37-42 percent when faced with multiple drought years and tough fish protection measures.

"The original motivation for building the desalination plant is obsolete," Longinotti said of the decline in demand. "We have a new motivation: the fish habitat issue."

When it approved the Integrated Water Plan, the council cited desalination as the preferred supply boosting project. But six years later, the plant, to be shared with the Soquel Creek Water District, is just now under the preliminary phase of design with an environmental analysis expected this spring.

If ultimately approved by the council, the project must be OK'd by the state Coastal Commission.

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