In the News


For Santa Cruz, desalination could be part of the answer to global warming

Brent Haddad,
Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/8/12

Santa Cruz is in an odd holding pattern during which a determined group of anti-desalination activists pepper our media outlets with their message while the city Water Department quietly waits for the project's EIR to emerge before engaging the public in a discussion of the merits of the plan. Normally public discourse waits until an EIR is produced so we know what we are debating. But what about our wonderful city is ever normal? So instead of waiting for the EIR, I'd like to comment on Steve Schnaar's opinion piece ("In Sandy's aftermath, local environmental groups call for strong climate action," posted Dec. 1.)

Schnaar correctly notes that the impacts of climate change could be wide-ranging and highly negative. It will take a great deal of flexibility and adaptability in our current urban management practices to deal with expected extreme events such as extended, intensive heat waves, droughts, and floods. Drawing on a quote from anti-desal leader Rick Longinotti, Schnaar suggests that the proposed desalination facility should be rejected because it requires electricity to produce the drinking water, which contributes to global warming and climate change.

This logic is equivalent to demanding that we don't run an air conditioner at a retirement home during a heat wave, drive to higher ground during a flood or even go online to check weather conditions, all of which increase our consumption of fossil fuels and contribute to global warming. Yet every day, every one of us contributes to global warming through such activities as working, driving, cooking, bathing, growing food, getting an education, and so on. It is silly to select an activity one personally opposes (e.g., desalinating water) and call for its end to fight climate change. I would use this logic to call for an end to basketball games involving the Boston Celtics -- how would you cut back on greenhouse gases?

Two issues for Santa Cruzans to consider are how do we minimize our water system's greenhouse gas emissions and how should we adapt to the climatic changes that are expected to occur?

The Santa Cruz Water Department convened a technical working group to study how to make the proposed desalination plant greenhouse-gas neutral. I served on the working group. The group generated several strategies that could provide Santa Cruz with a GHG-neutral desalination plant. I assume the recommendations will be in the EIR and that the desalination plant's operation won't contribute to global warming.

In terms of adapting to climate change, an essential element will be protection of our region's surface streams and the life they hold. Anticipated extreme droughts and heat waves will put huge stresses on the natural world just as on human society. During these periods, whether due to our stewardship ethic or because federal law will make us, we will leave more water than usual in our natural source waters. Right when we need more water due to heat and drought, we'll have less. Desalination can help protect our surface streams and the important life they hold, including migrating salmon, by providing a substitute supply for our city's use.

This coming spring, when evaluating the desalination EIR, environmental groups and the public will need to think of the trade-offs. One clear benefit of desalination is that it will provide additional water to help us protect our natural surface water systems by cutting back on their use when they need protection the most. This is likely to be done in a greenhouse gas-neutral way. I anticipate that many individual environmentalists and even some local environmental groups will conclude that on balance they support the desalination proposal. But let's wait for the EIR for that discussion.

Brent Haddad directs the Center for Integrated Water Research at UC Santa Cruz. Brent Haddad directs the Center for Integrated Water Research at UC Santa Cruz.

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