In the News

Santa Cruz City Council OKs studying water swap as desalination debate continues

By J.M. BROWN, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 7/27/2011

SANTA CRUZ - The ongoing debate over desalination heated up Tuesday as the controversial drought-fighting measure and a proposal to swap water during winter in exchange for help in dry periods became focal points at the City Council's afternoon session.

The council unanimously agreed to join a study with regional water agencies for swapping supplies, an idea explored but abandoned 21 years ago. In recent years, however, the county had laid the groundwork for a new study funded by a state grant that will evaluate trading water between Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and the Soquel Creek Water District.

Vice Mayor Don Lane saw the move as consistent with efforts to study alternatives to a desalination plant that could transform 2.5 million gallons seawater for potable use each day.

"We are pulling out all the stops," Lane said. "Every idea that might have some benefit to our water system, including desal and including conjunctive use [or swaps], are all worthy of our consideration."

The idea is that Santa Cruz, a largely surface-water system, would provide excess water from the San Lorenzo River in winter to be delivered first to the Scotts Valley Water District then to Soquel Creek Water District, with the understanding that the groundwater-based Soquel Creek district may return some water during drought periods. The city would be paid for the water it treats and transfers.

The city's Water Commission approved studying swaps June 6, and managers of the system serving 90,000 customers from Davenport to Mid-County agree the idea is worth exploring again even though they still expect few benefits.

"It seems clear at this time that this is not a substitute for desalination but may provide some incremental benefit to other agencies and maybe the city decades in the future," Water Director Bill Kocher wrote in a report. He also expressed concerns about whether transfers would challenge the city's water rights.

Critics of desalination have long advocated for regional swaps, questioning whether the city should continue exploring a plant that could cost upward of $100 million if there are other opportunities to boost supply during the high-demand, low-rain summer months. Some council members drilled Kocher about the rising cost of studying desalination.

Kocher requested, and received with unanimous approval on Tuesday, nearly $300,000 more for a consultant conducting an environmental analysis for the plant. The contract change order brings to $1.7 million the funds approved for URS Corp. Americas.

Kocher said the consultant needed more funding because the scope of research and other work increased after public comments and questions regarding what should be studied in the draft environmental report, which was expected to be completed by the end of year but will be delayed until spring.

"Anytime we are putting more money into this project you know there are a lot of concerns," said Councilwoman Katherine Beiers, who asked if Kocher could assure the council this would be the last increase for the consultant.

"It would be hard for me to stand here and tell you this is absolutely it," Kocher said.

Kocher estimated the total cost of studying desalination so far at $12 million combined for the city and its partner, Soquel Creek Water District. After grants are taken into account, he said the cost is $9.5 million, split evenly between the two agencies.

Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives said the city should hold off on spending more on desalination while a required Urban Water Management Plan and negotiations with federal fisheries managers are unfinished.

"With so many uncertainties," group member Rick Longinotti said, "The citizens of Santa Cruz would say that's too much; let's push the pause button."

In other action, the Santa Cruz City Council also approved the following measures Tuesday:

  • A final vote of 6-1 to support a three-month trial period to lift a ban on dogs downtown. Councilwoman Katherine Beiers dissented because she is opposed to a prohibition on panhandling with dogs. Dogs will be allowed downtown starting Aug. 25 on a leash no more than three feet from their handlers at all times as long as they are cleaned up after, not used in asking for money and not with more than one other dog.
  • A unanimous vote to reduce parking deficiency fees for new and existing businesses for two years, which will cost the city an estimated $215,000. The city will defer a downtown parking maintenance project for six months to cover the loss in revenue.
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