In the News

Desal opponents pronounce petition drive a success

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 5/30/12

SANTA CRUZ - Subscribing to the theory that a political promise is an oxymoron, a group of Santa Cruz desalination opponents on Tuesday said they've collected enough signatures to put the issue to a citywide vote.

The controversial $115 million project is still on the drawing board, but opponents have pegged it as an expensive and unnecessary solution to the county's persistent water woes. They handed in 8,800 signatures to city officials, far more than the 5,400 needed to put it on the November ballot.

"There is a groundswell," proclaimed Paul Gratz, a lead organizer of the effort. "There probably hasn't been an environmental and economic issue of this magnitude since the community launched an effort to save Lighthouse Field in the 1970s."

But it all may be moot. With the plant to produce 2.5 million gallons of water a day and pursued jointly by the city of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District, there are indications that both agencies intend to ask their customers for a vote anyway.

The Santa Cruz City Council has already decided to put the issue before voters next year, and Soquel Creek Water District board member Dan Kriege, who heads a joint desalination task force, said Tuesday he believed his agency would put it to a vote as well.

Opponents said they were concerned the city would back out of its commitment, especially if the composition of the council changed. The November vote would ask Santa Cruzans to amend the city charter to require a future desalination vote before the project goes forward.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane said the city would not back out of a vote next year. Even if the charter amendment was approved, that election would appear to fulfill any requirement for a desalination vote.

"I've never heard any of them describe a political scenario that would fulfill their worst fears," Lane said. "In other words, I just don't think the City Council in the future would break that commitment to have a vote."

But the signature-gathering effort could also be the basis for a more substantial grassroots campaign against desalination. Gratz said 120 volunteers collected signatures, and the campaign relied on paid petitioners only at the very end.

Opponents also raised about $15,000, efforts that Gratz said would continue through the November vote, if held. The city has 30 days to verify the signatures.

Opponent Jacquy Griffith helped collect signatures and said the process was eye-opening for signers. She also said the desalination plant wasn't needed.

"We just haven't done anything near what can be done in terms of conservation," Griffith said.

But Kriege said those efforts - which have resulted in a 20 percent per capita reduction in water use by offering customers deals on low-flow toilets, Gold Star-rated washing machines and even replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants - aren't sufficient.

"There isn't a conservation effort of any consequence that we haven't come up with," Kriege said.

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