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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | santa cruz county

Santa Cruz commits to desalination


Club concerned about many unanswered questions


In November the Santa Cruz City Council approved an EIR for an Integrated Water Plan which includes an estimated $40 million desalination plant as the preferred new supply option for the city. In addition to the desal plant, the Integrated Water Plan includes conservation measures and a commitment to curtail water use by 15% during a drought.

A smaller pilot desal plant will be built first as required by the State Department of Health in order to test the plant design and process. The pilot plant and related studies are estimated to cost $3.2 million and would be located on the westside of Santa Cruz, reportedly on the UCSC Marine Lab Campus at Terrace Point. The city has received an approximately $2 million State grant for part of the cost of the pilot project. If the pilot study gives satisfactory answers, the city will proceed with a much larger, permanent facility.

Conceived of as "the city's only alternative in a drought," the desalinated water would be piped to Capitola in "normal" years, to allow the Soquel Creek Water District to recharge its aquifers and ward off saltwater intrusion. In drought years, the plant would produce water for customers of the City Water Department, an area stretching from the north coast to the outskirts of Scotts Valley, from UCSC to Pasatiempo to Santa Cruz Gardens and all of Live Oak, including 41st Avenue. In drought years the Soquel Creek Water District would not receive any water from the desal plant but would be able to withdraw water from recharged aquifers.

Plans include piping the hyper-brine produced by the desal plant under the west side of the city to the sewer treatment plant at Neary Lagoon, where the desal effluent would be mixed with the treatment plant effluent and discharged through the existing outfall.

Unanswered questions

The Sierra Club opposes moving ahead on the water plan and the commitment to desalination before there are satisfactory answers to many questions. Unknown are the impacts on marine life from sucking up Monterey Bay water to process for drinking. Microscopic sea life would be killed in the desalination processing. The extent of such loss has not been addressed.

It is also not clear where the intake for both the pilot plant and the permanent plant would be located. If the permanent plant intake is located near where Almar Avenue reaches the Bay, it would be very close to the westside sewer outfall. Since the pilot plant intake may be located in a different (and cleaner) area, it is questionable whether the water quality data from the pilot plant would be applicable for the permanent plant.

Rate questions abound. No answers have been forthcoming on the differential rates to be paid by city residents as opposed to those paid by mid-county residents as opposed to those paid by Soquel Creek Water District customers. Rate questions are also key when considering the needs of UCSC, particularly in light of its expansion plans. Despite providing housing for thousands at present (and thousands more if its expansion goes forward as planned), the University is billed as an "industrial" customer, a significantly lower rate than that charged to residences.

To date, the Soquel Creek Water District has not signed any agreement to participate in the funding or operation of the larger plant. The desalination process at both plants will be fueled by natural gas, a fossil fuel that will contribute to global warming. The cost of this fuel continues to rise creating uncertainty about the cost/unit of water produced from the plant. Also, the concern that the desal plant could encourage growth is being dismissed by the city as an unnecessary worry.

In line with testimony at several public events by Jonas Minton, former deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources and now with the Planning and Conservation League, as well as other scientists and policy specialists, the Sierra Club believes that far more could be done through increased conservation and water recycling.

The city must apply for a permit from the Coastal Commission to proceed with building the pilot plant. Hopefully the Commission will insist on answers to many of the questions.








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