In the News

Desal debate deepens as Santa Cruz City Council weighs water planning that counts on facility

By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/23/11

SANTA CRUZ -- Opponents of a seawater desalination plant lined up Tuesday to strongly urge the City Council to implement alternatives for combating future drought.

The remarks came during a hearing for the Urban Water Management Plan, a report required by the state to provide 20-year supply and demand projections. The report will be up for approval Dec. 13.

The city projects demand will rise 500 million gallons annually by 2030 for the 3.2 billion gallon system. The city says supply is vulnerable -- suitable in most years but sharply deficient during a drought -- and faces uncertain cutbacks to protect fish.

Critics of the city's primary strategy for boosting supply say there should be greater conservation, an increase in reservoir storage and more watershed restoration. The council directed staff to add more conservation into the plan and discuss how it can balance supply and demand.

The city and Soquel Creek Water District have spent $9.3 million to study a plant that could ultimately cost more than $100 million and require high energy use.

"This desal plant will give us the most expensive water we could buy with the most environmentally destructive method we could use while giving us the worst return on our investment," resident Teetle Clawson said.

But Judy Warner, a member of the Sustainable Water Coalition supporting desalination, urged the council to keep moving forward.

"We have a fair and open planning process that needs to be honored and continued," she said.

Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives urged joint fact-finding with the city, but Vice Mayor Don Lane, who was selected mayor Tuesday, said the group has blurred truths about supply projections and the immediate ability for water transfers with neighboring agencies.

"There are a lot of folks I'm hearing from who I really respect and take seriously their concern about desal and water planning, and I also want to challenge you not to just take these claims at face value because they are not always correct," Lane said.

Tuesday, the council, in a 5-2 vote, OK'd spending up to $580,000, to be split with Soquel Creek Water District, for two consultants related to project. Opponents urged a halt on spending for the plant until an environmental study is done this spring.

Councilwoman Hilary Bryant, who was selected vice mayor Tuesday, took the rare step of diverging from the majority, saying she was concerned about a permitting consultant especially amid the deep division in the community over the plant. Councilwoman Katherine Beiers cast the other dissenting vote.

Other council members said they also were reluctant to spend up to $480,000 on a consultant tapped by the Water Department to handle permitting work for the plant, but said they believed it was necessary to spot any problems with an environmental analysis before it's reviewed by state and federal agencies. The other $100,000 is for environmental lawyers.

The council also approved a plan to put aside fees paid by UCSC for water use in excess of 200 million gallons per year for conservation. The council made the move ahead of a Dec. 7 hearing before the Local Agency Formation Commission to extend water service to an undeveloped corner of campus for new student housing.

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