In the News

Santa Cruz council OKs new water panel

By J.M. Brown, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 11/27/13

SANTA CRUZ -- The city's next mayor will join two fellow City Council members in nominating members of a new public advisory committee that will explore alternatives to desalination.

The council unanimously voted late Tuesday to establish the Water Supply Advisory Committee, which will lead a vigorous study of the impacts a wide range of alternatives would have on supply and demand. Lynn Robinson, who was named mayor Tuesday and will take her post Dec. 10, will join Councilmembers Don Lane and Micah Posner in recommending citizens to the panel, which eventually will be chosen by the full council.

Lane drew up the composition of the group, shrinking it from a proposed 19 members to 14, with the option to add or subtract members at the request of the panel and an independent facilitator. The council approved soliciting bids from professional facilitators, whose costs are estimated to be $150,000 to $300,000 for the yearlong examination.

Stripping salt from seawater and treating it to drinking-water quality has been the centerpiece of Santa Cruz's water supply planning for nearly a decade, costing more than $15 million for the city and its partner Soquel Creek Water District to study.

But the council directed staff in October to draft a "reset" plan -- with the advisory panel at the center -- after it became clear public opposition of the costs, energy use and other impacts was mounting. An environmental analysis drew more than 400 comments from regulators and citizens.

Lane recommended the panel's scope be broadened and that its name be changed from the Drought Solutions Citizen Advisory Committee proposed by city staff. Desal opponents had noted the city's main justification for desal has long been the potential for serious drought.

Lane, who will serve as vice mayor in 2014, also agreed to remove two seats on the panel for council members, seen by desal critics as key to letting the public guide the process, as well as seats for business interests expected to support desal.

"I'm not pretending there hasn't been polarization and mistrust," Lane told the crowd Tuesday. "We have to set our sights on moving past that. If we get this committee right, it means we are not all just entering the process just to hold onto the position we entered with."

The advisory panel will have a representative each from Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives and the Sustainable Water Coalition that favored studying desal. Those groups will nominate members for the panel, which will be selected by the council nominating committee.

The other seats, subject to an open application process, will be set aside for three city residents and a nonresident served by the water system; three representatives each from environmental and business groups; and two city water commissioners.

The council took no action Tuesday on whether to complete the desal environmental analysis but is likely to make a decision in early 2014 after consulting with leaders of the Soquel Creek district, who need a quick solution for the threat of saltwater intrusion. Critics have urged the council to shelve the environmental report and take desal off the table entirely to fully examine greater conservation, capture, storage and recycling opportunities throughout area watersheds.

Soquel resident Don Heichel told the council, "If we look around the county, we see that what we really have is not drought problems. We have regional problems."

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