In the News

Why the desal project eir should be completed

By Andy Schiffrin
Special to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/29/13

On Oct. 8, the Santa Cruz City Council is scheduled to discuss the city's water supply situation and, particularly, the future of the proposed desalination project. One of the hotly debated issues is whether the final Environmental Impact Report on the project should be prepared.

On one side, opponents of completing the EIR argue that the city's focus should be on water supply alternatives to desal and more public input. On the other side, the supporters of completing the EIR argue that it is important that the document be finished.

Each side tends to impute the motives of the other. For opponents of completing the EIR, agreeing to finish the EIR is tantamount to supporting the project and talking about a "reset" of the process is just a trick. For supporters of the project, the opponents' arguments against completing the EIR are just a ruse and what they really want is to kill the desal project altogether.

There's a certain irony in this debate. A number of the opponents to completing the EIR are staunch advocates of EIRs and would normally demand that the process be observed. On the other hand, a number of supporters of completing the EIR are critics of the EIR process generally and often criticize it for creating an obstacle to development.

The preparation of the EIR is required by the California Environmental Quality Act when it is determined that a proposed development project has potentially significant adverse impacts on the physical environment.

An EIR is largely an informational document. One of the objectives of the law is that decision makers and the public have adequate information about a proposed project's potential impacts before a decision is made to approve the project. The EIR is not supposed to make a recommendation either for or against a project. Its purpose is to analyze the proposed project's impacts.

In my view, one of the reasons for completing the desal EIR is that it will provide a wealth of environmental information that will be relevant and useful for other related projects, such as the Habitat Conservation Plan.

CEQA also has an objective to prevent environmental damage. In order for this to happen an EIR must include feasible mitigation measures to reduce adverse impacts. In addition, an EIR must analyze potentially feasible and less environmentally harmful alternatives to the project.

The alternatives analysis can be extremely useful to both decision makers and the public. It provides information on the feasibility of a full range of proposed project alternatives and an analysis of the environmental impacts of those alternatives that appear to be potentially feasible. In addition, decision makers can choose to select one of the alternatives to the original project, if they find it less environmentally harmful.

A second reason, then, why I think the desal EIR should be completed is that it will provide the City Council with an analysis of the full range of alternatives to the desal project and the opportunity to choose one or more of these alternatives as the project to implement.

Finally, one of the critical objectives of CEQA is to enhance public participation. A principle way this objective is accomplished is by including a public comment period on a draft EIR and by mandating that the final EIR respond to each public comment received. The purpose is to encourage people to participate in the EIR process and to have their participation treated seriously.

In my view, a decision not to complete the desal EIR undermines this objective and sends the wrong message to those who submitted over 400 comments on the draft EIR. The time and effort they put in to reviewing the document and responding to it should not be ignored and discounted.

In conclusion, I think there are three good reasons why the City Council should fund the preparation of the final EIR on the desal project at this time, while the information is fresh and relevant.

1. The final EIR will provide a wealth of technical and environmental information that will be useful whether the City ultimately proceeds with the project or not.

2. The final EIR will contain an analysis of all the alternatives possibly under consideration and the Council would have the basis to move forward with one or more of them should they choose.

3. The people who submitted over 400 comments deserve to receive responses to their comments and concerns, and their input respected.

Andy Schiffrin chairs the city Water Commission and was first appointed in 1993. He also teaches a class at UC Santa Cruz that focuses on the CEQA process.

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