The debate continues …
What started as a public Water Study Session on Nov. 1 shifted into a continuation of the longstanding debate over building a desalination facility on the shores of Santa Cruz.
“It felt like for the first time in a long time there was actually a civil discussion that was focused on the issues,” says Bill Kocher, Santa Cruz Water Department director. “It was great.”
But not all participants came away as satisfied.
Rick Longinotti of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives spoke for 15 minutes during the meeting. He says the public process in place does not provide adequate hearing time to alternative viewpoints. To address this concern, Desal Alternatives has proposed a joint fact-finding session in which different water interest groups would discuss their findings with the help of a professional facilitator.
Kocher, however, says a fact-finding session would be useless. “I really don’t think there’s much dispute about facts,” he says. “The facts are the facts.”
For example, he explains, water demand in Santa Cruz is currently 3.1 billion gallons and it used to be 4.2 billion gallons. This, Kocher says, is an inarguable fact. However, Kocher says demand will rise again.
“[Desal Alternatives doesn’t] agree with me on that,” he says. “Maybe they’re right, but the probability of them being right is very slim. The probability of me being right is based of history. It’s pretty darn good.”
Longinotti argues that water demand is not an uncontrollable variable but a policy choice. “It’s about setting a policy goal which alleviates the need for this huge financial expenditure,” he says. “You can freeze demand, and all kinds of good things happen as a result.”
Desal Alternatives pushes for increased conservation methods, such as water neutral development, which would require all new growth projects to build a way to neutralize water usage into their plans.
Longinotti also discussed the importance of making serious water conservation into a “mainstream” idea at the Nov. 1 meeting. As an example of this, he pointed, amidst friendly crowd laughter, to the celebrity Cameron Diaz who claims to abide by the “If it’s yellow let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down,” mantra.
Kocher says he has not heard any realistic alternative suggestions. “The difference is between people who are charged with carrying out plans that can impact a lot of people, and people who have ideas about the way things maybe could be but don’t really have responsibility for the outcome,” he says.
Representatives from the Soquel Creek Water District and Santa Cruz Water Department were the first to address the city council on Nov. 1. In keeping with their preceding policy, the Water Department discussed the necessity of building a desalination plant in Santa Cruz in order to curb disaster in a serious drought situation.
Mike Rotkin, former city council member who is a leader in the Sustainable Water Coalition, said during the study session that desalination is a necessary option to provide suitable water for the community. He said desalination critics are overly optimistic about the city’s ability to increase conservation to make up for shortfalls.
Since water demand is much lower than projections made in 2005, a key component for backing the desalination project is the looming environmental concern for endangered fish species. The city updated its Integrated Water Plan (IWP) shortly after learning that the state and federal fisheries departments plan to limit the city’s access to surface water in the San Lorenzo River, and potentially other surface sources, for the preservation of aquatic species.
Some factors that delay decisions on the proposed desalination plant are the incomplete Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and estimated budget. The Water Department says its main focus now is on completing an EIR by March or April 2012.
Kocher says until the EIR is complete, design work will remain on hold, and, until the design is further along, a budget is impossible to estimate.
Andy Schiffrin has been involved with Santa Cruz water issues for years, both as a former member of the city water commission and as an environmental studies teacher at UC Santa Cruz. At the study session, he summarized questions that he says should be answered before a decision is made on the desalination plant: Will the current low per-capita water demand continue into the future? What impact will the endangered species requirements have on the current water supply? How much more conservation can we consistently achieve?
“Until we have the answers to these questions, I think it is necessary to continue to evaluate the desalination project, but it is also critical to pursue additional conservation projects,” Schiffrin said. “Contrary to what some people seem to think, I have not decided desalination project is necessary. … Many of the concerns raised about desal are reasonable and it definitely needs additional and serious study.”