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Is Desal Headed for the Back Burner?

blog desalMayor and City Manager announce recommendation to reassess plan for contested desalination plant

If two top Santa Cruz city officials have their way, the hotly debated desalination project may soon find itself shelved.

This morning, Tuesday, Aug. 20, Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant and City Manager Martin Bernal announced their formal recommendation that no vote be held on the proposed desalination project in 2014, as planned.

Plans for the joint Santa Cruz/Soquel Creek Water District plant, which would produce up to 2.5 million gallons per day of desalinated seawater, has been part of the city’s water plan since the 2005 Integrated Water Plan deemed it the most feasible water supply option.

The plant would be used by the Santa Cruz Water Department to supplement supply in dry years and by Soquel Creek Water District in an effort to reprieve their depleted groundwater basins.

Community concern has escalated over the years, culminating with the passage of Measure P, the “right to vote” on desal ballot measure, in November 2012, which amended the City Charter to guarantee voters the right to approve of or reject desalination.

The 90-day comment period on the plan’s Environmental Impact Report came to a close on Aug. 12. More than 400 comments were submitted, according to Melanie Mow Schumacher, public outreach coordinator for the joint effort, known as scwd2.

In the joint statement with Bernal, Bryant says it is evident from the comments that “the Santa Cruz community is not ready for desalination at this time and we need a reset in the ongoing conversation on water supply and desal issues.” Other themes prevalent in the community input, according to Bryant, are that water challenges in the city need to be addressed with a more regional approach, a greater focus on conservation is needed, the likelihood of drought scenarios needs a deeper look, and that the ties between our local economy and water supply are not clear enough.

Bernal outlines a four-part plan that he will present to the city council “in the very near future,” according to Assistant City Manager Scott Collins.

He requests calling off the vote on desal in 2014, completing the EIR process, developing a plan to become a “top water conservation city in California,” and creating a community-involvement plan for moving forward on water supply options and issues.

“The City’s mission-critical obligation to provide a clean and reliable water source is threatened by dry conditions, climate change and state and federal regulators who seek more of our water to support critical fish habitat,” Bernal says in closing. “We owe it to Santa Cruz to provide enough water to sustain our way of life regardless of these challenges.”

The news comes on the heels of Water Department Director Bill Kocher’s announcement that he will retire in September. Kocher, who helmed the department for nearly three decades, was a key figure in the city’s pursuit and analysis of desal. He was also a founding member, and sat on the executive board, of CalDesal, an organization of water agencies “that were looking at perhaps adding desalination to [their] water portfolio,” Kocher told GT late last year. The group describes itself on its website as “the only advocacy group in California solely dedicated to advancing the use of desalination.” Upon the announcement of his impending departure, Water Department Communications Specialist Eileen Cross told GT that the city “is currently evaluating its relationship with CalDesal.”

Should the city approve Bryant and Bernal’s recommendations, a heated and potentially expensive 2014 campaign will be avoided, and the path forward for water supply matters reevaluated.

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