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Item in Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Santa Cruz Weekly, 02/25/2009

It wasn't high tech, and the panelists weren't professionals. But it was blind, and everyone who was involved drinks water, so we figured our office taste test of water from the pilot desalination plant counted for something. Besides, we wanted to know what the future will taste like when the environmental apocalypse robs us of fresh water, leaving us dependent on liberating seawater from its component salts. Should we plan on bringing lemon and cucumber slices to that party?

With help from Jaime the intern, who set up the tasting and was the only one to know which water was which, four of us assembled to taste water from a variety of sources: an unfiltered Santa Cruz tap, bottled water from Pure Water of Santa Cruz, Fiji purchased at Trader Joe's and the pilot plant's desalinated water, couriered that very morning via Nalgene from the lobby of the Santa Cruz Water Department. We tasted, we swished, we made faces, we took notes. And the winners emerged: Fiji, followed by Pure Water, then tap, and finally the water our grandchildren will be drinking if they're lucky.

Not a ringing endorsement of the water source hailed as California's savior in the era of climate change. Two of the four tasters rated the desalinated water last, citing a "salty smell" (but notably "no salt taste") and the taste of chlorine. One person rated desal third (ahead of tap water), noting that it was "very soft." The fourth absolutely loved it and rated it No. 1, citing "more taste" and "smoother" mouthfeel.

To Nūz, it tasted more like tap water than tap water itself, which, believe it or not, spells success to the folks at the Water Department. "It does taste a lot like tap water," says desalination program coordinator Heidi Luckenbach. "They treat it through reverse osmosis and then take it to the lab and post-treat it, adding back some minerals to get it tasting like what people are used to. Part of the idea is not to have people notice a difference."

There's a good reason for that: in some neighborhoods, desal could almost completely replace tap water. Luckenbach explains that if the city of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District were to go in on a full-scale desal plant, the neighborhoods closest to the actual plant (which would most likely be on the Westside) would have a lot of desal flowing out their taps; farther away in the joint water system--think Aptos--there would be little if any desalinated water in the mix. Nevertheless, the plant's 2.5 million-gallon-a-day output would be helping the district stave off saltwater intrusion, a serious problem in midcounty since demand outstrips supply by about 15 percent. And during drought, the plant could help the city of Santa Cruz Water Department make up for the water not flowing into Loch Lomond and down the river.

But that's all a big if. The pilot plant at Long Marine Lab runs until April 13, at which point the big heads get together and figure out how to deal with touchy environmental issues like where to place the intake pipes in the ocean and how to dispose of the brine left over after the desal process. Luckenbach says that by summertime the city and the district should have some answers for the public, as well as information on costs and energy required to run a full-scale plant.

For now and through April 13, city and district water customers can satisfy their curiosity by tasting the desalinated drink for themselves. Coolers of it are available, with little paper cups, in the Santa Cruz Water Department lobby, 212 Locust St., Santa Cruz, and in the office of the Soquel Creek Water District, 5180 Soquel Dr., Soquel. Tasters are invited to fill out an online survey at

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