In the News

Santa Cruz City Council to review key water policy: Desal opponents to make pitch against costly plant

Santa Cruz Sentinel, 10/30/11

SANTA CRUZ - The City Council will take a closer look Tuesday at water policy guiding the next generation, plans that opponents of a proposed desalination facility say lack aggressive conservation and other measures that would dilute justification for the controversial plant.

Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives will make a 15-minute presentation before the council - the first of any great length during a year of advocacy work - to urge water swaps with nearby agencies, the establishment of a water-neutral development policy and the creation of more incentives for customer conservation.

"What we want to make clear to the council is that there are steps to take immediately to address water challenges," said Rick Longinotti, a founder of the alternatives group. "Our argument is, these things should be done first, and desal should be the last resort."

Tuesday, water officials will walk council members through the 2005 Integrated Water Plan, which provided supply and demand projections through 2030 for the system serving 90,000 customers and producing 3.2 billion gallons of water annually. The report, which also outlines drought protection plans, was updated this year.

The council requested Tuesday's presentation after desal opponents raised questions about increased spending for a desalination consultant. The critics said water policies being used to justify studying the plan didn't take into account greater possibilities for conservation, water transfers, or updated projections in declining demand.

"The numbers have changed, no question about it," said Bill Kocher, director of the Water Department, acknowledging a reduction in demand of around 15 percent compared to earlier predictions.

But Kocher said losses in Live Oak wells, and a requirement by fisheries agencies to cut diversions from North Coast streams and the San Lorenzo River, have essentially reduced gains. Current projections show demand will rise by between 520-540 million gallons by 2030.

"What we are going to show the council is, you do still need it," Kocher said of the desal plant.

Consultants are drafting preliminary design concepts for the plant and studying its potential environmental impacts, a report Kocher expects by April. There will be a public comment period before the council weighs whether to OK the plant.

City officials anticipate opponents, irked over the energy-intensive process of transforming seawater for potable use, will sue over the environmental report. The project, which would produce at least 2.5 million gallons each day, must also receive approval from the state Coastal Commission and could reach the ballot box.

The total cost of the facility is difficult to estimate, though Kocher has said it could hit $100 million or more. Ratepayers will largely fund the plant.

The next two months will be critical in the development of the city's water policies.

The Urban Water Management Plan, a report required by the state to evaluate a water agency's resources and needs, will be reviewed by the Water Commission on Nov. 7 before the council considers it Nov. 22 and Dec. 5.

On Dec. 7, the Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission will hear requests by the city and UC Santa Cruz to extend 100 million gallons of water each year to an undeveloped portion of campus eyed for new student housing. If LAFCO denies the requests, UCSC will be required to house fewer students on campus than agreed in a 2008 settlement with the city and county, and could identify land within its existing footprint for building.



WHAT: Special study session on the Integrated Water Plan

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: Council Chamber, 809 Center St.

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