The highly anticipated draft Environmental Impact Report for desal is finally out. Will it change anything?
When scwd2, the group pursuing the proposed joint desalination plant for the Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District, set up a booth at the Santa Cruz Earth Day festival in 2012, its reception was less than warm.
Signature gathering for Measure P, the “right to vote” on desal ballot measure, was in full swing, as were tensions over the controversial project, which would produce up to 2.5 million gallons per day of desalinated water and cost an estimated $100 million. What were representatives of an energy-intensive desal plant doing among the recycling and conservation booths? That was the attitude Melanie Mow Schumacher, public outreach coordinator for scwd2 (pronounced “squid squared”), remembers sensing.
But she says the crowd at this year’s April 20 Earth Day festival seemed more interested than turned off by the scwd2 booth—a shift she attributes to Measure P’s passage at the ballot box last November. Now armed with the certainty that they will get a say in the matter, city residents were ready to talk about it, reasons Schumacher, who works for Soquel Creek Water District.
“I’ve noticed that, in general, over the last year or so people have a different perspective on the project,” agrees Desalination Program Coordinator Heidi Luckenbach, of the Santa Cruz Water Department.
Both are hopeful that water customers will commit themselves to taking a good look at the project’s long-awaited draft Environmental Impact Report (dEIR), which was released Monday, May 13. One week later, Luckenbach said several comments had been submitted—the first of many expected from the 60-day public commenting period currently under way. (See page 10 for details on where to find the California Environmental Quality Act-mandated report, commenting on it and and upcoming public hearings.)
The involved agencies set the stage for the hefty report at a public “study session” on Tuesday, May 7—a well-attended meeting that provided little to no new information but attempted to warm the community up for the approaching release. “Currently in the world we are producing about 20,000 million gallons per day of desalted water, and that number is increasing by about 10 percent every year,” Luckenbach told attendees.
Retired firefighter, former council candidate and desal critic Ron Pomerantz took the agencies to task on the nature on the meeting during the public comment period: “[This meeting is] a not-so-subtle attempt to lay the groundwork to convince us that we must pony up, open up our wallets, accept some degradation of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary and that it’s desal or nothing or we will suffer some [serious] consequences,” he said.
The evening’s PowerPoint presentation included an animated slide that showed covers from past water reports and studies twirling forward, meant to exemplify the years of water studies that ultimately led to desalination becoming the frontrunner. As for ongoing criticism that the meetings and materials amount to marketing for desal (Measure P co-author Paul Gratz called the dEIR rollout the city and district’s “advocacy campaign to build political and public acceptance for the desal EIR study and approval of the regional desal plant.”), Schumacher says, “it’s all part and parcel in getting that information out.”
In the draft, environmental impacts of the proposed plant are deemed to be less than significant with the project’s planned mitigations in place, except when it comes to one of the three possible site locations, which is ruled out as a result. Two dozen project alternatives are explored in the document, eight of which are looked at “in detail.” The report concludes that none would fully meet the needs of the neighboring water agencies.
For officials familiar with the proposed project’s inner workings and skeptics who have advocated for shifting the focus to alternatives, alike, the dEIR does not provide any big surprises. For the more ardent opponents, the report just fuels their frustration with the city putting more money and effort into the desalination project rather than “seriously” considering other options.
Because the dEIR’s take on alternatives largely reflects previous studies done and conclusions made by the two agencies, disappointment was inevitable from critics who were already unsatisfied with official attention paid to other water solutions. (Some, such as Desal Alternatives leader Rick Longinotti see fundamental flaws in the report itself; see page 4 for more of his thoughts.)
However, Schumacher thinks many concerned citizens will find the report’s study of alternatives satisfactory. “I’m hoping that that’s a pleasant surprise to the community—that we heard their issues … and they are addressed in the EIR,” she says.
Former Santa Cruz Water Production Manager Jan Bentley, who has been a vocal advocate for a deeper consideration of regional water transfers, says his first reaction to the report was “a feeling of emptiness.”
“There is simply no real effort to consider an alternative or alternatives to desal,” he writes to GT in an email, adding that he plans to comment on the document after a thorough study of it. “My frustration also comes from the realization that no matter what points we might raise, the two governing bodies will/may just answer the points without changing their course and then certify the EIR.“
But many of the oft-touted alternatives were ruled out over the years for “very real legal and environmental considerations,” says Councilmember Cynthia Mathews. “This has been built on years of serious study and the fact that we are pursuing this now represents the continuous best judgment of many elected officials and professionals over a period of time,” she says.
Once the final EIR is released, possibly by the end of the year, both involved agencies will decide whether to certify it. Then it will go up to a vote in the City of Santa Cruz and, depending on how things pan out in the coming year, other parts of the county, as well.
County Supervisor John Leopold is working with Santa Cruz Councilmember Don Lane to allow residents in Live Oak, Carbonera, Santa Cruz Gardens and some of Capitola to play an “advisory role” in the decision. This would require an estimated $60,000-$70,000 in city funds, according to a May 16 letter Leopold sent to Lane.
“With funding from the city to pay for the election, I am happy to coordinate with the county clerk’s office about putting the measure on the ballot at the same time that the city residents have the opportunity to vote,” Leopold writes, adding, “Non-city residents generally feel disempowered in the workings of the [water department] … Their ability to participate in the critical decision in a similar way as their neighbors within the city helps ratepayers feels as though their interests will be represented with this decision.”
Also in the works, says President of the Board of Directors of the Soquel Creek Water District Tom Lahue, is a discussion about allowing district customers to vote on a plant. That conversation will begin at the board’s June 18 meeting, which will take place at 7 p.m. at the Captiola City Council Chambers.
In addition to the dEIR, Luckenbach says studies specifically looking at the costs of desalination and what the community would look like without desalination will be completed sometime this summer.
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