With desalination on the horizon, the debate deepens
When it comes to the debate over desalination, there isn’t much of a middle ground.
While opponents to the plan for a 2.5 million gallon per day desalination plant stand by the idea of increasing conservation and cutbacks and exploring other alternatives (like maximizing use of existing water sources), city and water department officials unfailingly revert back to their matter-of-fact claim that “conservation and curtailment simply isn’t enough,” and that desalination has proven to be the only feasible route to augment the water supply. Representatives from scwd2, the joint agency formed by the Santa Cruz Water Department and the Soquel Creek Water District to pursue the project, claim there are no significant marine impacts. Opponents say there are. Scwd2 says the resulting water won’t be any different than normal drinking water; critics agreee it will be safe, but point out inherent differences.
This fixed polarity was the general theme of the first ever “Desal Debate,” hosted by the Santa Cruz League of Women Voters at First Congregational Church on Thursday, April 14.
The opposition team, consisting of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives founder Rick Longinotti and former Santa Cruz Water Production Manager Jan Bentley, argued against the plant’s necessity, pointing to a 35 percent drop in water demand over the past decade. Instead, they propose increased conservation to raise reservoir levels (they suggest raising the minimum end-of-summer Loch Lomond level from 64 percent full to 84 percent full—raising it by 560 million gallons, or more than the desal output would be), water neutral development (they’d especially like to see this at UC Santa Cruz as it grows) and regional collaboration in form of water transfers.
As expected, none of this sat well with the opposing team, made up of former city councilmember Mike Rotkin and Water Conservation Manager Toby Goddard. They shot back with the fact that Santa Cruzans already have half the state average for per capita water use, and local conservation is exemplary, and added that, contrary to opposition claims, UCSC growth and city development are not factors in the need for desal. “Growth and water use simply isn’t a problem we have,” said Goddard. “Our problem is lack of adequate supply in drought years.” They continued on to refute the idea of a regional water swap between Soquel Creek and Santa Cruz, with Rotkin saying, “It’s an interesting idea, but we don’t want to rely on something that might work or might not work.”
And so went the back-and-forth. All of the issues we’re use to hearing about in the desal discussion were thrown to and fro, with the expected answers at the ready. The only gray areas were the energy efficiency (or lack thereof) of a plant, whether or not it could end up on a ballot for voters to decide, and the plan’s fiscal outcome.
“There is no argument that conservation is cheaper, per unit, than developing a new water source,” said Goddard, adding, once again, that conservation will not be enough to solve the shortage. “Desal opponents would have you believe that with composting toilets and rain barrels we could save our way out of this problem—and that’s simply not true.” He posed that even if the city used the money to instead offer every resident in the jurisdiction a composting toilet, “not one of them would take it—well, maybe one.” At this, there was immediate objection from the crowd—hands shot up with cries of “I’ll take one!” and “Me too!”
One of the evening’s more interesting developments, aside from the toilet uproar, unraveled as both sides’ charged that the other was employing fear tactics to sway the public. Rotkin called the SCDA’s concerns about UCSC growth and city development “fear tactics,” while the SCDA team gave the same label to Rotkin’s descriptions of a future without desalination that would find residents “unable to flush their toilets.” Rotkin repeatedly pointed to city studies that show that doing more than 15 percent curtailment would result in “business failures and health and sanitation problems in individual homes.”
SCDA also suggested that the city’s drought projections—the reason for needing a desalination plant, by their own account—are grossly exaggerated. While the city centers their water planning around worst case drought scenarios and expectations for a drought once every six years, Longinotti said a worst-case drought (one requiring 25 percent curtailment) actually occurs once in 90 years.
In response to SCDA’s proposal to implement landscape irrigation restrictions similar to those executed successfully in 2009, Goddard retorted that a shortage must be in place to implement those types of restrictions, quipping, “Do we really want to live in a community where we’re surrounded by water police?”
Rotkin added some color to the “there’s no other option than desal” claim with a peek into his own personal journey from desal adversary to desal advocate. “I started out as an opponent to desalination,” he said. “I worked really hard over the last 30 years for an alternative, but we really haven’t found one.”
Ultimately, both sides of the issue are thinking long term—the problem is that the two long-term visions are instrinsicly different. While the city tries to do what they believe is responsible planning (“We have to think long term,” Goddard said. “We have a legal responsibility to prepare for disaster situations and protect the community.”), the dissenters believe desalination is backward thinking.
“Nature has limits and we need to figure out how to live within them,” Longinotti told the crowd. “We need to show by our example that we’re going in the right direction.”
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