In the News

As We See It:  Don't delay desal plant

April 14, 2010 by Editorial Board of Santa Cruz Sentinel

April showers bring water power, right?

This year's abundant rainfall, augmented by a powerful storm this week, might suggest all worries over drought and water supply are over.

And if that's so -- if the majority of Santa Cruz County water users have enough water for the foreseeable future -- then why proceed further on a costly and environmentally touchy desalination plant?

Critics recently have been attacking the Santa Cruz Water Department/Soquel Creek Water District plan that would cost more than $50 million to turn seawater into drinking water. The plant would only be used in seasons of drought.

Opponents' arguments have been three-fold:

One, that conservation and other water-saving methods such as capturing rainfall runoff and recycling will help avoid severe water shortages in the future.

Two, that desalination would use fossil fuels to provide the electricity needed for operations and that marine life could be affected.

Three, that a plant would lead to more people moving in and more development.

The facts, however, are that local water users already use far less water than other Californians -- 75 gallons per day per person, on average, for Santa Cruz users compared to 130 gallons a day for all Californians.

Also, there are limits on how recycled water can be used and conservation can only go so far to save water.

The Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek district are promising the plan will use advanced technology to make the plant energy-efficient and to offset greenhouse gas impacts.

Regarding growth, some critics say a desal plant would help UC Santa Cruz expand. It doesn't. It's for drought conditions. Moreover, UCSC, which has an excellent record of water conservation, and the city of Santa Cruz have agreed the university will be treated as any other developer and pay all costs related to any new water service connections.

Make no mistake: The local water supply can be unreliable. The Santa Cruz Water Department currently relies primarily on surface water captured from rainfall and streams to supply its 95,000 customers. When it doesn't rain -- and Santa Cruz has experienced severe droughts in the not-so-distant past -- then water is in scarce supply, even with the high level of local conservation.

It's during those years of drought that Santa Cruz would use the plant. The rest of the time, the desal facility would go to work for the Soquel Creek district, which serves about 40,000 people between Capitola and La Selva Beach, often to combat creeping saltwater intrusion into underground aquifers.

If design, environmental review and permits proceed as planned, a desal plant could be online by 2015.

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