In the News

Water officials make desal pitch to leaders at private meeting

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/20/11

The leaders of two area water agencies pitched a proposed desalination plant to an invitation-only crowd of about 50 dignitaries, business leaders and public officials Monday, saying supply shortages and other environmental threats require an aggressive plan to boost production.

Bill Kocher, director of the Santa Cruz Water Department, and Laura Brown, director of the Soquel Creek Water District, said their 135,000 customers from the North Coast to La Selva Beach will face significant cutbacks during severe drought years without a new water supply to supplement surface sources, the groundwater basin and wells. The city also faces a demand by federal fisheries officials to reduce its draw on the San Lorenzo River and North Coast streams, while the Soquel Creek district anticipates saltwater intrusion in its underground aquifers.

"We're asking you to get engaged and stay informed in this project," Brown said. "It is our community's water supply future. We need to know what the community wants us to do."

Monday's meeting at the Museum of Art and History, called by the Sustainable Water Coalition founded by former Santa Cruz mayors Cynthia Mathews and Mike Rotkin, stoked the ire of desalination opponents, who made their own pitch to attendees as they entered the museum.

The organizers rejected calls by Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives to open the meeting to the public because two top water officials were participating. Mathews said the meeting was a private group, the kind Kocher and Brown address often on request.

Supporters of Desal Alternatives handed out fliers outside the museum publicizing a meeting with Transition Santa Cruz on Tuesday. The two advocacy groups, meeting at 8 p.m. at the Live Oak Grange, will argue that public funds plowed into the desal proposal should instead be used to provide jobs for infrastructure upgrades, water transfers and conservation efforts.

Teetle Clawson of Santa Cruz, a former business owner, said desalination is too expensive and energy intensive.

Santa Cruz for the first time is behind the times, she said.

"What we want is an open forum," she said, objecting to the privacy of Monday's meeting. "We're looking for an honest and open conversation about water solutions."

Those in attendance included county supervisors Ellen Pirie and John Leopold; Cabrillo College President Brian King; Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane and members of several city commissions; Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz; and Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.

The meeting was taped by Community TV to be aired later, but Mathews defended the decision to keep attendance private, saying representatives from business, politics and environmental advocacy groups were invited. Mathews welcomed donations for her coalition.

The two water directors said their agencies have been studying alternatives to boost supply for 30 years and have decided pursuing the plant is the best idea, along with continuing conservation. An environmental study of the project is likely to be released next spring, and if passed by both agencies and permitted by the Coastal Commission and other regulators, construction could begin in 2013.

The agencies are studying how to offset the energy required to run the plant, though Brown said desalination would use about the same amount of energy on average per year as Dominican Hospital. The plant, to be located on the Westside, could cost about $100 million, Kocher said. The two agencies' ratepayers would cover most of the costs.

Cleo O'Brien, a local government relations committee member for the Santa Cruz Board of Realtors, said she wasn't necessarily convinced by the presentation to support desalination but said "something's got to be done."

She said clients often ask about water supply when buying homes.

"This seems like a perfectly viable solution, with the research going into it," she said. "I give them credit. They're not rushing into it."

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