Bill Kocher, director of the Santa Cruz Water Department, has said that you can take the salt out of the water, but not the politics.
That was evident even before an invitation-only meeting Monday at the Museum of Art and History, when Vice Mayor Don Lane threw a sandwich at a photographer he said was hounding him.
Lane apologized twice to community blogger Alex Darocy, who described himself as a paparazzi. Darocy shot pictures of everyone entering the meeting but found Lane sitting alone a few doors away up Front Street eating a sandwich and shot a picture.
Lane asked him not to shoot him, saying he was on his own time. Darocy kept shooting pictures, inspired by the civil servant's uncivil anger. Lane then threw part of his sandwich at him.
The vice mayor apologized several times, and Darocy said afterward that he accepted it. Lane said he had been working on city business since early morning and just wanted a few minutes off. He said later that he was wrong to throw the sandwich.
"I guess I need anger management classes," said Lane. "That's what they tell me."
Lane expressed his views in a blog in about how uncivil people in Santa Cruz have become about political differences.
The desalination plant, which may be the city's biggest municipal project ever, at $100 million, is already polarizing the town.
A group of opponents called Desal Alternatives passed out leaflets at the meeting, asking people to attend another meeting Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Live Oak Grange to talk about how not building the plant would create jobs.
Meanwhile, the invitation-only meeting was a pitch to various people in the community asking them to support the desalination plant.
Kocher and Laura Brown, director of the Soquel Creek Water District, described the perils of a decreasing water table, including ocean water and toxic chromium-6 compromising the Soquel district's wells if the table keeps plummeting.
"The problem is if we wait until it's too late," said Kocher. "It's like the oil light in your car and the oil light is on."
The two water districts, which comprise 135,000 people, will work together to build the plant, if approved. It would produce 2.5 million drinkable gallons a day by sifting salt out of ocean water.
Opponents say the cost is too high and that demand for water has dropped in recent years. Proponents claim that the drop is largely because of a bad economy with empty stores, manufacturing businesses that have left town and rentals that don't water lawns, and that demand will pick up again in the future.
When it does, if the cities aren't ready for it, the consequences could be severe, said Kocher. He said the desal plant was like buying fire insurance. You don't expect to have a fire, but you are prepared if you do.
"It's not maybe we may have a drought like they have in Texas," he said. "Of course, we will. Those things are going to happen."
Kocher said there are 15,000 successful desalination plants around the world, in places where less expensive means of saving water were impossible.
"This is not new technology," he said. "It works."
Opponents outside suggested that more water could be made available with repaired pipes, stricter conservation and construction of higher reservoirs. They said taking on a project like this when money is so scarce is a mistake.
Kocher and Brown said those things have been tried and aren't enough to make up for the increased needs for water in the future.
The event was hosted by the Sustainable Water Coalition, founded by former Santa Cruz mayors Cynthia Mathews and Mike Rotkin.
Mathews, who chaired the meeting, said it was being taped by Community TV and would be shown in the future. She said the meeting was closed to the public to "gather a wide variety of people in the community."
The Santa Cruz City Council will hold public meetings on the issue in November.
The speakers said the plant would use no more energy than Dominican Hospital, and its cost would amount to a 10 percent increase in water rates over 10 years. The cost of not building it would be greater, they said.
"The days of cheap water are over," said Kocher.