In the News

Put the brakes on desal spending

Commentary, Rick Longinotti
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/20/11

On several occasions members of the Santa Cruz City Council have expressed the sentiment that desalination should be a last resort. Other strategies to make better use of existing resources should be employed first. On Tuesday at 7 p.m., the council has the opportunity to put that intention into practice. To do so they will need to put the brakes on desal spending and direct their Water Department to implement alternatives first.

The Water Department is asking the City Council for more money for the desal project. This time it's a half-million for a consultant to guide the permitting process for the desal project. According to Bill Kocher, head of the Water Department, $12.5 million in city, Soquel Creek Water District and state taxpayer money has already been spent on the desal project.

It's time for the council to draw the line. Money for the permitting process should wait until a decision has been made whether to approve the project. And that decision will happen after an environmental impact report is complete.

The second decision the council will make on Tuesday is whether to include three key strategies in the city's five-year Urban Water Management Plan. Even people who are committed to the desalination project should have no objection to water exchanges with Soquel Creek District, water-neutral growth policy and more resources for conservation.

Unfortunately, the draft five-year plan makes no mention of new conservation programs. The city's draft makes no estimate for any additional savings that could be achieved through conservation. I know of no other water agency in the state that has not estimated savings through conservation in its Urban Water Management Plan. Soquel Creek Water District, for example, has estimated that conservation will reduce its total water demand by 8 percent between 2015 and 2030, even allowing for new development.

The draft makes no mention of a water-neutral growth policy. Water-neutral describes a program whereby new development pays to offset growth in water demand through conservation retrofits in existing properties. Such a program has been in place in Soquel Creek District since 2003. The city has just begun drafting a water neutral program for the UC Santa Cruz campus because such a program is required to secure approval for UCSC expansion. The city needs to extend the program to its entire service area, and not just the campus.

The draft five-year plan says this about water exchanges with Soquel Creek District: "There is little upside potential that the city water system would be supplemented by such a project." This statement is based on the assumption that Soquel Creek District would not send water back to Santa Cruz during a drought until their aquifer recovers from over-pumping. However, an Oct. 19 letter from Soquel Creek District to the City Council reads, "SqCWD is willing to negotiate transferring some quantity of the yield we would receive from winter surplus from the San Lorenzo River back to the City during drought periods." The district's offer to return water to Santa Cruz during drought years is not contingent on aquifer recovery because their net gain from receiving river water every winter would substantially reduce their aquifer pumping.

If the council approves funds for desal permitting and fails to adopt the three strategies for making better use of our existing water resources, I will be supporting a ballot initiative that will put the decision on the desalination project in the hands of the voters.

The council can be contacted at

Rick Longinotti is founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives.

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