City Shuts Off Water Plans Pending a New Report

Slides shown to the council Tuesday by City Manager Martin Bernal
Slides shown to the council Tuesday by City Manager Martin Bernal
After hours of mostly negative input from the public about a $129 million proposed plant to remove salt from ocean water and use it to replenish wells during droughts, the Santa Cruz City Council has shelved the plan and asked the city staff to come up with new recommendations.

The desal plant was  favored by the city's former water director Bill Kocher and by several council people on a committee studying the water problem. The city has spent $15 million investigating it since 2009, including $1.7 million on an Environmental Impact Report that remains unfinished.

After dozens of residents complained about the spending and environmental issues about the plant, the city council voted to stop spending on the Environmental Impact Report until the city staff creates a report weighing it amongst other alternatives, such as ways to save more water. 

The city's staff, in a report, said Santa Cruz is already in the top six percent in the state for saving water. However, the group called desal alternatives, which has lobbied hard and long against the plant, says that more strict conservation methods and piping water between Santa Cruz and Soquel, Aptos and Capitola would be better than spending for a plant they consider too expensive and not reliable.

Several residents talked about capturing more rainwater and councilman Micah Posner several times talked about enforcing conservation by using recycled water in toilets rather than using drinking water. They also discussed technologies such as low-flow toilets and shower heads, which are already in common use.

A few things have been fueling the drive for a desal plant. One is the eventuality of a drought, like those in the 1970s, in which people had to stop watering lawns and were cautioned not to flush toilets so much. Another is the fact that the Santa Cruz Water District combines the city, with its population of 60,000 with another 30,000 from the Soquel Water District.

While the city gets its water from streams, rivers and Loch Lomond reservoir, the southern areas depend on well water and the wells are getting so low they are being overwhelmed by seawater.

Federal wildlife agencies have placed another hurdle, requiring the city to use less water from rivers and streams to protect endangered fish. 

Environmental lawyer and former councilman Gary Patton said that the city was favoring the desal plant and that to do a complete reset, as voters have indicated, they should stop work on it and place it equally with other conservation measures. 

"This is very much like earthquake recovery," he said, alluding to the Loma Prieta quake of 89 that devastated the city. "This is the whole future of our community."

Councilman Posner said he wasn't an expert on water, but could read people and they were not happy with the city's path.

"The community feels injured and to put us back to a place of healing is to stop spending money on this EIR today," he said. 

Councilman Don Lane made a motion to stop work on the EIR and have the city staff weigh  it and its costs along with other proposals. 

Lane made it "so we could decide together to go forward, but only in the context of a larger overall plan so that desal wasn't moving ahead of other options."

Hannah Moore October 10, 2013 at 02:15 PM
I was at Tuesday's meeting. It got heated but I love that the community is so passionate about this issue. I learned so much about the topic just from hearing people speak.


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