A Salty Vote

news2With desal heading toward the ballot, the debate rages on

In Santa Cruz, which relies almost entirely on surface water, scarce rainfall and a warm winter have water department employees and residents, alike, worried about the year’s water supply. The recent dry spell tied in interestingly to the prevailing debate over the city’s proposed desalination plant, which they insist will be necessary to protect the city from inevitable droughts.

The proposed Westside desalination facility—a joint effort of the Santa Cruz Water Department and neighboring Soquel Creek Water District—would produce 2.5 million gallons of water per day by removing salt and other minerals from seawater and making it safe for human consumption. But many are worried about the project’s impacts on both the taxpayer’s wallet and the environment.

The vocal anti-desalination movement, which has been led, thus far, by Rick Longinotti’s group, Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, made news last month when it announced the launch of the Right to Vote on Desal campaign. The effort seeks to gather enough signatures to put desalination up to voters in November.

The matter was a predictable topic for the Santa Cruz Neighbor’s Feb. 21 water-themed meeting, to which desal opponents Longinotti and former Santa Cruz Water Manager Jan Bentley were originally scheduled to speak, and then uninvited at the last minute.

According to Santa Cruz Neighbors event organizer Deborah Elston, the rescinded invite was because the meeting was meant to be educational—not a debate.

“We realize that desal is part of that conversation, but tonight it really is just part of the conversation,” Elston announced at the beginning of the event. “It isn’t the whole conversation.”

But as each speaker took his or her turn power pointing about desalination costs, effects, and plans, it became clear that desal was, in fact, the central issue at hand, and that all speakers were supporters of the project.

Longinotti, Bentley and other Right to Vote on Desal members are critical of the financial cost of desalination, the projected increase of city energy usage, and the environmental impacts—mainly the endangerment of marine organisms caused by the intake and outtake of seawater.

The Right To Vote on Desal is seeking a minimum of 5,500 signatures by early May to put an initiative on the November ballot that would establish the public’s right to vote on the desalination issue. If the initiative passes, the vote wouldn’t veto or approve the desalination plant project, but rather guarantee the voters another election to decide.

Mayor Don Lane and Councilmember David Terrazas have cited the group’s campaign initiative as “flawed,” and put forth another ordinance at the Feb. 28 city council meeting that, if passed, would also guarantee residents the right to vote, but at one special election. (As of press time, the council had not voted.)

The Right To Vote campaign worries that the city’s initiative could do more harm than good.

Primarily, the group is concerned about the high cost of special elections and the fact that voter turnout is often much lower than at regular elections. But if the Right to Vote on Desal’s initiative makes it onto the November ballot, an additional election would also be required if it passes.

Either initiative could end up costing the taxpayer money, but Lane asserts that the city’s version would be simpler and less expensive—requiring an ordinance be passed by the city council rather than petitioning thousands of signatures.

The Right to Vote on Desal group is also concerned that Lane’s measure could legally be repealed at any time by the city council. However, former mayor Mike Rotkin asserts that there’s no possibility of the city repealing the initiative.

“If they said you could vote and then changed their mind later, in this town they’d be crucified,” says Rotkin. “There’s no question there’s going to be a vote one way or another.”

Regardless of securing residents the right to vote on the issue, many opponents feel that desalination has become mainly a political issue.

“[The city] doesn’t want to have anything stall their desal project,” says Bentley. “They’ve spent a ton of money on it, there’s a lot riding on it, and I don’t blame them, they’re doing a very, very good job of defending what they’re doing. But I just strongly feel that they shouldn’t do it.”

The desalination project is currently in the city’s evaluation phase—meaning that when and if the final Environmental Impact Report is approved, which isn’t expected until early 2013, voters will then have the right to decide. Because 2013 is not a regular voting year, it’s looking like either desal initiative would require a special election

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