H2O in Limbo

water splashAfter postponing vote on desal, Santa Cruz moves forward in water supply discussions

While the City of Santa Cruz has hit pause on a proposed desalination plant, many are still wondering what that will mean for the city’s involvement with CalDesal.

CalDesal is a pro-desalination advocacy board comprised of numerous water agencies, with a mission of advancing the use of desalination in California. Bill Kocher, the city’s long-time Water Department director, was a founding member. But Kocher retired earlier this year, raising questions as to whether the city would continue its membership with the organization.

“My understanding is that there hasn’t been a renewal,” says Eileen Cross, Water Department communications specialist, of the city’s membership. “That’s the latest I know as of late.”

Cross says she isn’t entirely sure whether or when the current membership has expired, but she hasn’t heard of any plans to renew. Membership costs $5,000 annually.

Cross was hired in April to help with the city’s communication needs on the draft Environmental Impact Report preparation for desalination. 

Membership in CalDesal has been a controversial issue in an already-contentious debate. Opponents of desalination have argued that it creates a conflict of interest for the city.

“CalDesal is essentially a lobbying group,” says Gary Patton, a former Santa Cruz County Supervisor and land-use activist.

Membership in such an organization supports its efforts, he says.

“I think it’s not appropriate for the city to back that (organization) before they’ve even made a decision on desalination,” Patton says. “They should withdraw.”

He says that particularly in light of the City Council’s decision to basically put a reset on desal discussions, the city shouldn’t retain membership in CalDesal.

The City of Santa Cruz is still listed as a member on the CalDesal website, along with a lengthy list of other public agencies, including the water districts of Alameda, Solano, San Diego, Orange and Sonoma counties and the cities of Santa Barbara, Oceanside and San Clemente, among others. The Sacramento-based advocate for desal development also counts more than 40 private firms among its members.

Absent from that list is the Soquel Creek Water District, which was exploring a desalination plant jointly with the City of Santa Cruz. The district’s board voted in June to quit its membership with CalDesal.

Directors of the board decided to drop its membership because, essentially, they didn’t feel it was appropriate to be members of an advocacy group for something on which they were still trying to reach a decision.

Another founding member of the advocacy organization, the Marina Coast Water District Board, voted in July to drop its annual $5,000 membership in CalDesal.

Kocher remains involved with CalDesal, which he’s previously said isn’t accurately described as a lobbying group.

The organization’s website, however, has a clear mission statement outlined.

“CalDesal is the only advocacy group in California solely dedicated to advancing the use of desalination,” the site says. “Other organizations choose not to engage, or address desalination as part of broader policy platforms. CalDesal’s narrow focus allows for the most targeted, credible and persistent support for this important technology.”

Ron Davis, executive director of the organization, could not be reached for comment by press time.

Meanwhile, city officials are still in the process of hiring someone to take over Kocher’s position. The nationwide recruitment period is over and officials are in the process of screening candidates, Cross says. Interviews will likely begin in mid-December, and the hope is to hire someone sometime early next year, according to Scott Collins, assistant to the city manager for Santa Cruz.

Linette Almond, the deputy director of the Water Department, is serving as the interim director. She plans to retire after Jan. 1, however, eliminating her as a potential candidate for the full-time director slot.

While city officials work to hire a new water director, discussions about what to do about water supply issues continue. The Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District’s joint desalination task force was scheduled to meet Nov. 20, but that was canceled due to “a lack of business,” according to the SCWD2 website.

The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 18. The agenda has not yet been published.

Additionally, the City Council of Santa Cruz was scheduled to vote at its Nov. 26 meeting to move forward with an extensive community engagement effort on the city’s water supply. In other words, a framework for the so-called reset on the water supply discussion. Councilmembers were expected to motion to establish a yearlong Drought Solutions Citizen Advisory Committee with the purpose of analyzing and formulating recommendations.

The proposed membership for the 19-member committee would include two city councilmembers, two water commissions, one representative of the educational community, two representatives of local businesses, one member of the Sustainable Water Coalition, one member of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, three members from environmental organizations, one representative of the recreation industry, two city residents, one county resident, one representative of the industry and manufacturing sector, and one representative of the hotels and tourism industry.

The advisory committee will be considered a major component of the discussion, and will focus on community engagement and topical discussion pertaining to water supply planning. The committee will be tasked with coming up with recommendations to the City Council.  

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