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Desal opponents upset over private meeting: Former mayors plan invite-only gathering to advocate for controversial project

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/13/11

SANTA CRUZ - Opponents to the city's proposed desalination plant object to a private desalination advocacy meeting planned for next week by two former mayors, who have asked the city's water director to brief the invitation-only group.

Mike Rotkin and Cynthia Mathews, members of the Sustainable Water Coalition, a group they helped to form over the summer, have invited 150 representatives from the business, education, tourism, agriculture and other industries to attend the Sept. 19 gathering at the Museum of Art and History.

The meeting will feature Water Director Bill Kocher and Laura Brown, general manager of the Soquel Creek Water District, the city's desalination partner. The two are expected to discuss regional water shortages and ways desalination can address the problem.

Rotkin and Mathews, who have served 26 and 16 years on the council, respectively, believe the two agencies should pursue a variety of ways to reduce demand and boost supply, and that desalination should not be excluded, as opponents have argued.

While demand is down in recent years, city officials say desalination is needed to offset future drought and a federally mandated reduction in supply taken from the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams in order to protect fish habitat. Groundwater basins in the Soquel Creek district face the threat of saltwater intrusion.

The two agencies, which serve about 135,000 customers, are studying a plant that could transform 2.5 million gallons or more of seawater per day for potable use. The City Council, Soquel Creek board, California Coastal Commission - and possibly voters - must approve the project before it can be built.

"We fully acknowledge the need for continued conservation and the exploration of other alternatives, including water transfers," Mathews said. "We're looking at the long term to meet the community's ongoing and drought-period needs. It's an informational presentation and definitely, from our point of view, will have an advocacy piece."

Mathews said the meeting is not designed to recruit supporters or financial contributors for a potential pro-desal ballot measure. Mathews declined to disclose all who had been invited.

Paul Gratz, a leader of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, said he is troubled that "two esteemed former mayors should organize an invitation-only event that features highly paid department managers whose salaries are paid by taxpayers. It just brings in to question transparency versus privacy."

Mathews, who like Rotkin was termed off the council in 2010 along with Rotkin, said Kocher's appearance before the group will be no different than when he has discussed desalination and other water issues for other community organizations. She said the meeting is private so that Kocher can give select community members a briefing without it turning into "a contentious debate."

For opponents, the meeting demonstrates another way in which city resources are being used to tout desal rather than just study it. Gratz and others have questioned a decision by the city and district to pay an engineering firm working on the project to also help with promoting it.

"Taxpayer and ratepayer money is used to aggressively market desalination, often with exaggerated claims about desal and misinformation about those that are putting forward sustainable alternatives," Gratz said.

Kocher, who speaks to community organizations about water issues twice a month on average, said he doesn't see it as his role to promote desal. He noted that the council and its water commission made the decision several years ago to explore building a plant, but did acknowledge that he believes the project would best boost supply.

"What concerns me now is that we are not just debating whether or not (those bodies) made the correct choice of project," he said. "We are debating whether or not the city and Soquel Creek actually need to do anything at all, and frankly, I find that frightening. In almost any speaking engagement I go to, my focus is on the need to do something, and do it fairly quickly as we have a water supply that is vulnerable."

Kocher has said the city has enough water to meet average demand in most years, but in the worst drought with the toughest protections for fish, the city could see shortages of up to 75 percent without a new supply source. Desal Alternatives believes greater conservation and water transfers between regional agencies make desalination unnecessary.

Rotkin agrees the city's "first approach needs to be conservation, the maximum conservation we can get," he said. "But I'm interested in any realistic alternative that will help us deal with our water issues, and we are not going to exclude desal."

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