In the News

A History of Santa Cruz’s Desal Fight

Looking back at the bitter battle over how to solve local water issues

By Jacob Pierce, Santa Cruz Weekly, 12/17/13

We don’t know how 2014 will go or how much rain we’ll get. But one thing looks pretty certain: It won’t be the year of desalination.

Santa Cruz is getting ready to accept applications for a water panel, now that the city council has agreed to stop pursuing desal once the environmental review is finished. And so, we bid goodbye to an entertaining era in city politics. The argument over desalination was full of public relations games and passive-aggressive shots taken by both sides. Here’s a look at the timeline that got us here:

FALL 2010: Activists try pressuring the city to put desalination to a city-wide vote because of concerns about its environmental and financial costs. City council and water staff show no interest in the idea.

FEBRUARY 2012: Rick Longinotti and other frustrated members of Desal Alternatives take matters into their own hands by starting the group Right to Vote on Desal. They start gathering petitions to put desalination to a vote in June of 2014. Mayor Don Lane worries that election date would be too late and might cost millions more dollars by delaying construction. He and councilmember David Terrazas write a ballot measure nearly identical to Longinotti’s. But theirs would allow the public to vote on the measure as soon as the plans are done. Eventually the city’s water staff tells Lane that June 2014 would not be too late, because the EIR isn’t on schedule anyway. The council agrees to hold the vote no sooner than June 2014—making it now the same as the activists’ initiative, Measure P. Council starts taking credit for the idea to put desal to a vote and encourages desal opponents to drop their own ballot measure—even though, yes, a public referendum was exactly what the council tried to avoid.

SUMMER 2012: Many city councilmembers oppose Measure P. But Longinotti encourages Santa Cruz residents to vote “yes” in order to guarantee a vote on the issue, even though the city council’s previous vote now already ensures that. Sure, city council could undo their own ordinance, as the activists routinely point out—if they want to risk political suicide.

NOVEMBER 2012: Measure P passes with 72 percent of the vote, and desal opponents suddenly change their spin. After the election, activists say the overwhelming “yes” vote suddenly means not just that voters want the right to vote on the issue, but that Santa Cruz doesn’t want a plant at all. “There’s a new reality after the November election,” Longinotti said at city council. “The voters are now looking to you to come up with a new plan in case the voters do not approve desalination.”

AUGUST 2013: City council puts desalination on hold. Mayor Hilary Bryant and city manager Martín Bernal start to wonder if they can muster enough public support to win at the polls. Bryant and Bernal announce a recommendation to table desal for now. Water director Bill Kocher resigns after 27 years.

SEPTEMBER 2013: Desal opponents pressure the city to halt all spending on the plant—which comes out to $15 million so far, a cost split with the Soquel Creek Water District. “You should table this item. You should bring it back, and you shouldn’t have the word desal mentioned anywhere in here! You can talk about anything but desal, please!” said Mike Boyd, who had filed suit in March trying to halt the plant. City council declines to drop the EIR, arguing that it’s important and includes studies about alternatives to desalination. Meanwhile, Loch Lomond, the city’s reservoir, dips to a 16-year low.

NOVEMBER 2013: City council, largely under the guidance of councilmember Don Lane, creates a 14-member Water Supply Advisory Committee to look at long-term solutions to Santa Cruz’s drought problems and ways to make Santa Cruz drought resistant. The committee will include community members, activists, businesspeople and two water commissioners. “I’m not pretending there hasn’t been some polarization and mistrust,” Don Lane said at a Nov. 26 meeting. “But we do have to set our sights on moving past that. If we get this committee right, it means we’re not all just entering into the process just to hold onto the position where we entered. Many of us come in with strong feelings, and we have to acknowledge them and put them somewhat aside in the interest of a good working group.”

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