.Ebb & Flow

The Desal Debate Evolves: With another year of debate and developments behind us—including the fact that desalination will now, ultimately, be up to the voters—what’s really changed in the desal dialogue?

In November, 72 percent of City of Santa Cruz voters said yes to Measure P, effectively amending the City Charter to guarantee voters the right to approve of or reject desalination.

The proposed 2.5 million gallon per day seawater desalination plant could cost $115 million to bring to fruition and $3 to $4 million annually to operate, according to a recent report on desal financing by The Pacific Institute. The plant would be used by the Santa Cruz Water Department to supplement supply in dry years and by Soquel Creek Water District in an effort to lay off of their depleted groundwater basins. The plan (nicknamed scwd2) calls for the plant to be expandable to a 4.5-million gallons per day capacity.

During the campaign, some Measure P critics claimed that the initiative was confusing to voters, who might think they were voting based on their opinion of desalination itself. In response, Measure P proponents stressed that it was solely a “right to vote” issue.

cover water-faucetHowever, now that it has passed, many in the Measure P camp are touting its passage as a rejection of desalination or, in a subtler sense, a hint at what might happen if/when desalination lands on the ballot in a few years. And some of those who originally claimed the measure was misleading voters into voting based on their opinion of desalination have now changed their tune to say that Measure P’s success doesn’t imply anything in regard to public feelings on the issue.

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One question lingers: Now that Measure P has passed with a high margin of victory, what does it really mean for the water debate in Santa Cruz?

Unsurprisingly, it depends who you ask.

Its triumph means the onset of a “new water reality,” in the words of SC Desal Alternatives founder and Measure P co-author Rick Longinotti.

“Voters are really asking for something different,” he says. “They are asking for a Plan B, for the alternatives.”

In a Desal Alternatives newsletter emailed to members a few days after the election, Longinotti wrote that “the prospect of voters ultimately approving a desal project seems iffy” because of the victory. Does that mean that voters were voting between the lines, so to speak, when they voted “yes” on a measure that, on its face, simply asked if they wanted to be able to vote on desalination in the future?

“Strictly speaking they were voting on the right to approve it,” Longinotti says. “But I don’t think there would be any argument to the idea that people are interested in alternatives.”

The win implies there is an engaged, interested public that cares about water decisions and is demanding to hear about all possible options, he says.

He sees this turning tide impacting recent city water decisions, such as the Water Commission’s Nov. 5 decision to shelve a public outreach and communication plan related to desal and the city council’s Nov. 26 move to limit the nature of a contract with desal consultant firm Kennedy/Jenks. The council hesitated over a few items in the up to $390,000 agreement that they feared were not absolutely necessary to getting the forthcoming desal Draft EIR out. (The most recent ETA for the anticipated report is March 2013.)

cover desalspigotAs a result, the council decided to send the contract back to the Desal Task Force—comprised of members of the council and representatives from Soquel Creek Water District—for some deletions and restrictions. The tweaked contract will come back to council for approval in January. If they had approved it, Longinotti would have “chalked it up to that it hasn’t sunk in yet that we need a Plan B.”

With the possibility that desal could die at the hands of voters, Longinotti also expected a shift in The Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)’s decision on whether or not to approve an application that would allow the City of Santa Cruz to expand water services to UC Santa Cruz’s nascent North Campus.

Without a guarantee of “desal in their back pocket,” he didn’t think LAFCO could justify granting the application. However, the commission didn’t have to make that decision—yet—because a Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 27 that the application’s EIR was inadequate.

At the Nov. 26 council meeting, former councilmember and Sustainable Water Coalition member Mike Rotkin urged the council not to read too deeply into Measure P’s success. “Some people are attempting to misrepresent the 72 percent [passage],” he said. “People are saying that because it was 72 percent, the public is demonstrating a huge opposition to desalination.” Rather, he said, the vote shows the public’s desire for democracy.

City Councilmember Don Lane says he takes Measure P at face value.

“As a city councilmember, all I can do is read what the measure said and take that as what the voters told me,” Lane says. “They said we want you to put this on the ballot. I think to do anything more than that is kind of questionable in terms of the integrity of the voters. All [voters] got to do was read what was on the ballot and say yes or no to that. They didn’t have a comment box where they could say what they really meant by voting yes or no.”

Whatever the overall intentions were with the passing of Measure P, the decision of whether or not to move forward with desalination could land in voters’ laps as soon as 2014, if the involved agencies give the EIR their stamp of approval.

However, Santa Cruz Water Department Director Bill Kocher is quick to point out that Measure P didn’t lead to that change by itself.

Earlier this year, the city council passed an ordinance that promised voters the opportunity to weigh in on construction of a desalination plant. Desal opponents weren’t satisfied with the effort (which they feared a future council would overturn), and sought a stricter guarantee via Measure P. (Longinotti dislikes resorting to a vote, which he calls a “crude form of democracy,” but says, “In order to get the city to engage with us, we had to go to Measure P.”)

Kocher says that Measure P, in and of itself, has not slowed down the desal project, but that it would have moved along faster had neither of the efforts to give the decision to voters happened.

“I don’t think the Measure P thing changed anything that wasn’t already changed,” says Kocher, who is one of around 40,000 people who live outside the city limits but within the city’s water service area, meaning he didn’t have the opportunity to vote on the matter. “Absent of a vote, I would have planned to move everything along as expeditiously as possible and see if, in early 2014, we couldn’t be going out for design contracts. But we won’t be able to do that now.”

Kocher was a founding member, and sits on the executive board, of CalDesal, a fairly new organization of water agencies “that were looking at perhaps adding desalination to [their] water portfolio,” says Kocher. The group, which has a $5,000 membership fee, describes itself on its website as “the only advocacy group in California solely dedicated to advancing the use of desalination.”

Kocher expects the issue to be voted on locally in either the spring or fall regularly scheduled elections in 2014, but says “either one is a little later than I had hoped for.”


The most significant result of Measure P’s passage, in Longinotti’s eyes, is the opportunity it presents for refocusing on other water supply alternatives. Enter the much talked about “Plan B.”

“Even if you’re in favor of desalination, you need to admit that it’s a fair possibility that the voters could reject it,” he says. “You want to have a backup.”

cover desalinationHe adds, “We have a pause. We have an opportunity. Let’s not blow the opportunity. Let’s not find ourselves two years from now in the same place, not having made any progress.”

Newly seated councilmember Micah Posner personally opposes the desalination plant project, but says that the city’s role is now to listen to the people, whom he agrees are demanding backup plans.

“The council’s role at this point in time is to say to the [Water] Department that we know you like the desal option better, but the community wants to see [options] b, c and d,” Posner says.

In an effort to protect itself against drought-year water shortages, the City of Santa Cruz, which relies almost entirely on surface water, studied supplemental water supply options over the course of the last few decades. By the time its Integrated Water Plan was adopted in 2005, desalination had been deemed the most feasible supplement and it became one third of the plan (along with conservation and curtailment) that the city would pursue from that point forward.

The ruled out alternatives now sit in what Kocher says is an engineering library “full of Plan Bs.”

“Every one of them was compared to desal, and all were found to be inferior,” he says. “If this is rejected, we will take one off of the shelf that was previously rejected and start over.”

He calls this scenario “The Water Cliff.”

“If this thing falls through and we have to start over—wow,” says Kocher. “You hear about The Fiscal Cliff. This would be The Water Cliff.”

Since the IWP was adopted, the city has seen decreases in demand as well as in supply. In addition to being forced to take less from its depleted groundwater sources, the city is in negotiations with state and federal fishery agencies on a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which will determine how much they need to reduce intake from streams in order to protect endangered fish like steelhead trout and coho salmon.

Although “lord only knows” when the HCP will be finished, in Kocher’s words, they do know that they will be losing about a quarter of current production levels to the fish. So far, the agreement is that the city will leave 80 percent of flow in streams in dry and normal years (66 percent of years). Fisheries are requesting the same amount in dry and critically dry years (the other 33 percent), but Kocher says the city can’t agree to this because it would create a 76 percent water shortfall in those years. And so the negotiations trudge onward.

Forget what has defined the desal debate so far, says Kocher—the outcome of the HCP will be the real game changer in the water situation.

“Really and truly, this is all about fisheries now,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t push for a desal plant if the HCP weren’t in play. “That’s because our conservation has been so successful that, absent of losing this water, I would be standing in front of council saying, ‘I don’t think you need to build anything. I think we’re OK; it’ll be a little tight but it’s doable.’ [But now] I don’t see any other way.”

As it stands, Kocher says desalination remains the selected water supply alternative and that, despite current events, they are not currently planning to reopen previously rejected alternatives in the time between now and a possible vote. However, this could change depending on the outcome of the EIR or if council requests that the Water Department focus on another option, such as inter-district water exchanges—an option that desal opponents prefer.

Meanwhile, the Soquel Creek Water District, which relies solely on groundwater, is facing irreparable seawater intrusion if they do not ward it off by pumping far less water. In the last year, it determined its sustainable yield to be 2,900 acre-feet per year, meaning it will have to pump no more than 2,900 acre feet per year for 20 to 30 years—35 percent less than it does now—in order to effectively rest and replenish their wells, according to Soquel Creek Water District Board President Thomas LaHue. The district is currently working to move its pumping farther from shore to prevent intrusion, replacing old wells with newer ones that function better and are farther inland.

Ron Duncan, conservation manager for Soquel Creek Water District, says that desalination and mandatory curtailments are the avenues being explored to fix the district’s pressing problem, but that a water transfer is a welcomed ingredient. While both Soquel Creek and Santa Cruz say they are interested in and open to the idea, both also claim that a transfer would not solve their entire problem.

County Water Resources Division Director John Ricker has been assessing a water transfer between neighboring districts in a Prop. 50-funded study, which he says will be wrapped up in March.

Measure P and the council’s earlier decision to send desalination to a vote haven’t affected or put more pressure on the study, says Ricker.

Since the December 2011 GT cover story examining the water transfer possibility, the study has progressed with additional modeling, but is still waiting on several moving pieces—chiefly water rights and the outcome of the HCP. However, Ricker says he can already conclude that a water transfer, alone, would not provide enough water to meet either district’s need.

“It would be a supplement,” Ricker says. “If there was no desalination plant, there would have to be serious reduction in water use [in addition to a transfer].”

Ricker reports that Santa Cruz would likely be able to give Soquel Creek a few hundred acre-feet per year. It is unclear how much water Soquel Creek would be able to return to Santa Cruz during dry summer months. (Ricker adds that a water transfer could cost $100 million or more.)

Alongside regional water transfers, desal opponents also favor increased conservation efforts and water neutral development. Kocher points out that conservation is already part of the city’s plan—a baseline conservation study that will report how much conservation potential is left in the city is scheduled to be released in early 2013. However, Water Conservation Manager Toby Goddard has estimated that this figure will be around 200 million gallons.

The city’s next wave of conservation goals, and how to achieve them, will be put forth in a new water conservation plan that will replace the one that expired in 2010. On Dec. 3, the Water Commission recommended that the city council approve a contract with Maddaus Water Management for the execution of this plan; the council was expected to consider this at its Dec. 11 meeting, after this article went to press. Although Goddard promised at the Dec. 3 meeting that the plan would “cast a very wide net,” the extent of the conservation measures remains to be seen.

Posner, who previously served as director of sustainable transportation organization People Power, has faith that Santa Cruz—of all places—can make serious reductions in water use. He wants to apply the time-tested “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan, and thinks the city could become a better partner in residents’ conservation changes. Posner would like to see further replacements of items like showerheads and toilets, adoption of greywater usage for toilets, landscaping, golf courses and washing machines, and more.

Councilmember Lane agrees that Santa Cruz can do more conservation, but disagrees with many desal critics on the amount. All of the low-hanging fruit has been achieved, he says, and now any additional conservation won’t have as big of a return.

“The more conservation you’ve already done, the harder it is to get the next bite,” he says. “In the past, people felt it was doable and wanted to do it. But at some point you start pushing people in a way where [they feel] ‘wow, that’s hard.’”

Down in the Soquel Creek Water District, per capita water usage is already at about half of the state average. Duncan says the district anticipates use to rebound from the current around 4,000 acre-feet to 4,600 acre-feet per year, “even with a strong conservation effort.”

Without a supplemental supply, Soquel Creek’s LaHue says customers will experience drastic changes in order for the district to meet its 2,900-acre-feet per year target.

“If you don’t have a supplemental supply, you have to really do a whole program on mandatory curtailment,” he adds. “It’d be no longer voluntary. If you use more than a certain amount, you get a penalty.”

He goes on to note that “when we look at an alternative supply, the choice is not desal or nothing. The choice is desal or pretty strict rationing, and water police and whatever else needs to be done. I want everyone to be happy currently, but I also want people 20 years from now to be thankful that we saved the aquifer from saltwater intrusion.”

Are locals ready to make big changes in how they use water? Posner thinks so. “I think the people in Santa Cruz are uniquely suited to do that,” he says. A desalination plant is simply not in line with the sustainable direction the world is heading, he says.

While it won’t be easy, Posner feels real change toward sustainability will be worth it. “It will encourage creativity in every sense, from economic to housing to personal,” he says. “When you adapt and evolve, you get smarter. And Santa Cruz is the perfect place to say, ‘We weren’t going to rely on the last generation’s energy ethic. We are going to evolve.’ We just have to get together more and work together as a team.”

Longinotti agrees. Sticking with the former way of thinking, à la plans for desal, “defers a day of reckoning,” he says. “Let’s deal with the day of reckoning right now.”

And herein lies one facet of the debate that has not changed—or even budged—over the last year: The desalination discussion remains comprised of starkly differing opinions based in deeply rooted and divergent perspectives. Some simply believe locals can and should dramatically alter the amount of water they use and how they use it. Others, including many local officials, see this as overly optimistic. “We rely on tangible evidence,” says Kocher. “They rely on wishful thinking.”


Should a campaign unfold, it’s possible that the anti-desal faction will have a leg up in the race: they’ve been running some form of a campaign against desalination for several years.

Now that the issue will be up to voters, it raises a sticky question about the boundaries of education and outreach on the part of the involved public agencies. The council’s Nov. 26 decision to remove education and outreach components of the Kennedy/Jenks contract (the consulting firm helping with the desal EIR) reflects an awareness that the public wants them to carefully toe the line between providing information and marketing.

Lane, who thinks a vote would be a “close call,” says the EIR will play an important role in creating a well-informed voting public. He expects the scenarios it includes, such as the “no project alternative scenario,” to put a future without desalination in perspective.

cover desalbeach“It will describe what happens if we proceed with conservation measures we’re developing and then have a drought,” Lane says. Like LaHue, from Soquel Creek, Lane wants residents to see a vote not as “yes, I like desal” or “no, I don’t like desal,” but as a vote on whether to proceed with the project or to support the alternative—a future with “serious sacrifices.”

“That is a very viable choice—to say we are willing to have less water,” he says.

Scwd2’s Melanie Schumacher says the EIR will also include a comparison between desal and a package of bundled alternatives.

Lane believes it is important for the EIR to be made as accessible and understandable as possible, as the process requires public comment and response to the public comments. He believes that can be done “without ruffling any feathers.”

“In order for the community to have a good discussion about desal, we have to have a good discussion about the environmental impact,” says Lane, who is part of the Desal Task Force.

Beyond that, he says the agencies should exercise caution in how they interact with the public.

“There’s an important concern that a process like this could lead to [outreach] being marketing or advocacy work,” Lane says. “Based on what has happened over the last couple of years, there have been a couple of times when things were put out during the process that touched that line of marketing or advocacy.”

He says that the task force will make preventing this a top priority over the coming months, and will hone in on only what’s “essential.” Still, he feels that whatever level of outreach is done will be perceived as advocacy or marketing by desal opponents.

“Some folks who are dead set against desal will use this opportunity to claim that any public outreach that the task force does is advocacy,” Lane says. “That’s their propaganda—to claim that any outreach the task force does is propaganda. It’s a political game. They’re entitled to play it.”

If the EIR gets the stamp of approval and heads to a vote, Lane says there will no longer be a place for outreach on the part of the city, except to provide “a body of information that is a complete description of the project.” He says that this could mean one informational event provided by the city.

By the time a vote were to take place, it is likely that all affected voters—not just those in the City of Santa Cruz—will be able to weigh in.

For his part, Longinotti would rather it didn’t go to a vote at all.

“My own personal desire is that we not have a huge conflict over desalination in two years,” Longinotti says. “I don’t think that does the city any good. It would create a lot of division. And it’s perfectly unnecessary. We’ll lose two years of action time where we could be implementing things.”

Instead, he would like to see a broader, non-desal-centered democratic process in which the public is involved in making water policy decisions.

“There is so much problem solving that could happen short of a vote,” he says. “A vote is a win or lose, and people are campaigning, and it’s polarizing. It’s such an unsatisfying way [to accomplish something].”

Longinotti adds that he’d like to see a mediator get involved in mending the fissures in the community caused by desalination. He also says he is planning “stakeholder meetings” for 2013 that will bring residents, restaurateurs, hoteliers, and other businesspeople to the table.

“What if there was a democratic process where you engage people and say, ‘hey folks this is a problem. What do you want to do? Here are some possible directions—do you want to rip out your lawns? That might solve part of the problem,’” Longinotti says. “That way, it is [saying] ‘We’re all adults here.’ It’s not a handful of social engineers trying to make the marionettes move in a certain way. I really don’t see, yet, that cover waterfallsrthought catching on among, say, the governing board at Soquel Creek or in Santa Cruz.”

He adds, “If the people lead, those who govern will follow.” And with Measure P and the city’s earlier ordinance now in place, they will have no choice.


FOR A RAINY DAY… Curious what sort of impact rain, like the downpour we recently had, has on the city’s water supply? At a Dec. 3 Water Commission meeting, Water Department Director Bill Kocher told the commission that the San Lorenzo River had flowed at 9,000 feet per second over the previous weekend, but that it was down to a 700 feet per second flow that day. Loch Lomond’s levels went from 88.9 percent capacity on Nov. 28 to 98.5 percent capacity on Dec. 3.

County Water Resources Division Director John Ricker’s water transfer study in March 2013
The Desal EIR, also due out in March
The city’s baseline conservation study in early 2013
The city’s in-the-works water conservation plan, which will lay out the next 10 years of conservation efforts.
The Habitat Conservation Plan

What do you think? Do you already know how you will vote when/if the time comes? Or are you waiting to learn more? Let us know on comments below or by writing to [email protected]


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