How prepared are locals to vote on the city’s most contentious issue?
This Nov. 6, Santa Cruzans will not only cast their votes for a new president or an incumbent one, but also for local city council candidates and ballot measures. Citizens may dedicate much of their political consternation to the presidential election, but there are important decisions to be made at home, too.
The implications run deep and the controversy runs high when it comes to one issue being raised in the local election, in particular: desalination. Because of a potentially dire water shortage in times of drought, the city is looking in the coming years to move forward with—or nix—the building of a $115 million desalination plant, says Bill Kocher, the city’s water director. The plant would be built in the City of Santa Cruz, and would hopefully be finished by 2016, says Mike Rotkin, former city councilmember and co-founder of the Sustainable Water Coalition, which advocates for conservation, water storage and water augmentation measures in Santa Cruz.
Which of the seven city council candidates secure the four available seats (Tony Madrigal and Ryan Coonerty are terming out, and councilmembers Don Lane and Katherine Beiers’ seats are up for grabs after four-year terms) could potentially have a huge impact on how the city chooses to move forward with desalination, how much money is spent, and on which conservation and augmentation projects it will be spent on. Candidates who are elected will most likely encounter the water shortage problem during their tenure, and their positions on the desalination project or alternatives may have a huge influence over how the public and the council address water issues.
“That’s what’s at stake in electing a new city council,” says Rick Longinotti, who founded the group Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives in 2010.
But a vote for candidates themselves is not the only way voters will influence the desalination outcome in Santa Cruz in the upcoming election. Also up for consideration is Measure P, which states the city would require voter approval before it builds a desalination facility. Also called the “Right to Vote” initiative, this measure comes in response to the fact that the city council has already spent millions of dollars studying desalination without a public vote, says concerned citizen Paul Gratz.
An ordinance already exists—Ordinance No. 2012–03— passed by the current city council in March of this year that says the city is required to get voter approval for construction of the desalination plant.
However, Gratz says the Right to Vote would make it impossible for the plant to be implemented without public approval, and that this step is necessary to ensuring the public’s say in the matter in the future.
“It truly empowers the community,” Gratz says. “It says if we are skeptical of our city officials, they cannot go ahead without a vote from the public.”
Lane thinks that while a public vote on the building of a desalination plant is important and necessary, the Right to Vote has “muddled things” for voters, who may not understand that they are not voting on their stance on desalination with this ballot measure, but rather voting to vote on the issue in the future.
“That confusion has not been helpful at all for the community, because that means that they have to decide [and] make up their minds about desal now when, in fact, they’ve got a year and a half to two years more to make up their mind,” Lane says.
Voter confusion may not stop there, says Water Director Kocher, because the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the desalination plant will most likely not be completed in time for the election.
The draft EIR, which is being produced by the URS Corporation, “a fully integrated engineering, construction and technical services organization with the capabilities to support every stage of the project life cycle,” according to its website, has been in the works for about a year and a half, Kocher says. He doesn’t know when it will be done, although it was initially slated for release this past spring, and then again this fall, although that looks increasingly unlikely, he says.
The main problem with the draft EIR not being ready for election season is public education on the issue, Kocher says.
“I’m disappointed because there are elections this fall and it’s going to be a question that is going to be on the minds of voters,” Kocher says. “Candidates are going to be running and they’re going to be asked questions about it. It would have been my preference that the EIR was out, and people could say ‘Yeah, I read it, and this is what I think about it.’ But now, I don’t know what anybody can say … We missed an opportunity … But it’s more important to get it right, to have it be thorough and have it answer the questions that people have on their minds. So I just shut up and let the train run.”
Even without the EIR—or perhaps because it’s not available—Kocher says public education is key in the election.
Longinotti, along with other desalination skeptics and opponents in the community, believes that city councils now and in the past have not looked extensively enough at options other than desalination for water augmentation and conservation. Most importantly, Longinotti believes the council has not looked hard enough at the option of a water transfer between Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District.
Longinotti says the city council made a decision years ago to follow one path, and has not strayed since. As a result, he believes Santa Cruz is now too far down that path.
“The desal train kept going,” Longinotti says. “We need to reconsider. We can’t get the city council to reconsider right now. They’re all on a single track.”
Kocher says it is true that council has gone down this road knowing the monetary implications, and hoping it was a road that would be successful.
“Council gave us marching orders a few years ago,” Kocher says. “I said … ‘What you’re asking is going to cost a lot of money. My sense is that if you don’t like desal, now would be the time to say so, and to drop it. Don’t let us get down the road 10, 11, 12 million dollars and then say…’I don’t like it. Let’s go down some other road.’ I take council’s direction to mean, if it can be done in an environmentally benign way, and at a cost that we think is reasonable, we’re down, but if it can’t, we’re not. The councils of the past have said, ‘Yes, this is our preferred project, assuming it’s going to work.’”
Kocher also points out that a large percentage of people who would use water from the proposed desalination plant will not be able to vote on the implementation of it because they do not live within city limits. This is because the Santa Cruz water system services 90,000 people, including residents in the city as well as “portions of unincorporated Santa Cruz County, a small part of the city of Capitola, and several agricultural customers along Highway 1 between the city limits and the town of Davenport,” according to the Integrated Water Plan Draft EIR from 2005. Additionally, residents within the Soquel Creek Water District would be impacted by the desalination plant votes, as the plant would be a joint operation of both neighboring districts.
Lane says he hopes in the future to work with the county to be able to include all citizen input in a final decision on whether or not to move forward with desalination.
“The truth is, I wish we didn’t need to be thinking about desal,” Lane says. “But we have a pretty serious water problem ahead of us and we can’t just say it will work itself out. It’s going to have to be some really specific and substantive action that the city takes.”