Experience from other places should give us pause as we consider building a desalination plant. On Jan. 23, 2010, The Australian reported, “Rusting in sea water, the $1.2 billion Gold Coast desalination plant required repairs soon after it opened. The showpiece of a Queensland government strategy to drought-proof the state’s booming southeast, the project has been plagued by so many construction flaws and unscheduled shut-downs that the government is still refusing to take possession from the contractors who built it.”
The St. Petersburg Times reports on the only large-scale desalination plant operating in the United States, “Tampa Bay Water’s long-troubled desalination plant is having more problems. The $158 million plant, which opened five years late and cost $40 million more than expected, remains unable to supply the full 25 million gallons a day that was originally promised.” Closer to home, a Santa Barbara desalination plant sits idle, never used since its completion in 1992. Meanwhile Santa Barbara residents are still paying off the bonds for the plant.
Santa Cruz doesn’t have to repeat Santa Barbara’s mistake. Conservation has greatly alleviated our drought risk by reducing our water demand. According to the City’s 2003 Integrated Water Plan (IWP), desalination was intended to alleviate a portion of our water supply shortfall during a worst-case drought. The shortfall is the difference between water demand, which the IWP projected to be 4.8 billion gallons in 2010, and the amount of water available during a drought, 3.3 billion gallons. That shortfall has nearly disappeared, as actual demand in 2008 was 3.6 billion gallons, dropping to 3.1 billion in 2010. Thus, recent Water Department statements that a worst-case drought would require “45% peak-season curtailment” are inaccurate. When we challenged the inaccuracy, City of Santa Cruz Water Department official, Toby Goddard, acknowledged, “We are both in agreement that water demand presently is a good bit lower today than what was assumed to be the case in developing the City’s IWP … Furthermore, we agree that there is a need periodically to update how all these changes affect the City’s drought risk.”
The disappearance of the shortfall has achieved the original goal of the desal plant. Yet the City Council continues to approve funds for desal studies and design, currently running $17.5 million through 2012.
A new rationale for desalination has emerged. The City’s water supply will diminish once the National Marine Fisheries Service requires the City to reduce its diversion of water from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams in order to restore populations of native fish. But turning to the energy-intensive solution of desalination will only worsen CO2 emissions that are making ocean waters more acidic, affecting all marine life. A better solution is improved conservation. What if the City instituted a free toilet installation program such as exists in Soquel Creek Water District, with the goal that 90 percent of buildings get the latest .8 gallons/flush toilets? What if we launched a campaign to replace water-hungry lawns with drought-tolerant plants, supported by rebates such as Long Beach’s $2.50/sq ft? What if the City invested in rainwater catchment for landscape
and toilet use? These measures would not only cost less than desalination, they would provide local jobs. Moreover, they would reduce our carbon footprint rather than increase it. Desalination requires seven to 10 times the energy of pumping water out of the ground.
Secondly, we should enact a water-neutral development policy, similar to Soquel Creek Water District’s policy of offsetting new demand with retrofits in existing buildings.
Another solution is collaboration between water districts. The County is conducting a study of regional water exchanges that could provide rainy season aquifer relief for Soquel Creek Water District in amounts comparable to a desalination plant. Soquel Creek Water District could supply well water to Santa Cruz in drought years. Our water agencies would have the funds to implement this alternative if they weren’t shelling out for desal pre-construction costs.
We can choose between increasing our fossil- fuel dependency or creating a sustainable water future. Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives is considering a ballot measure that would require voter approval before a plant could be built. You can learn more by visiting the website, desalalternatives.org.
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