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,
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.
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
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
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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