By Daniel Correia
Amidst university expansion and an increase in the city’s population, the city of Santa Cruz faces an increasing demand for water. In an attempt to make up for this demand, the city has introduced plans to install desalination plants in the Monterey Bay. However, desalination, a process by which ocean water is converted to clean and useable water through reverse osmosis, is widely criticized for its reliance on large amounts of energy and extremely expensive cost of operation. In Santa Cruz, many concerns have also been raised as to the potential environmental hazard the plants may pose to the bay.Florida-based Water Standard is one of the companies in the position to spearhead a desalination plant project in Santa Cruz."The main problem with land desalination plants is their water intake," said Skip Griffin of Water Standard. "They can suck up large amounts of sea life."Along with the intake problem, the output is also a major environmental concern. The byproduct of the desalination process is a saline concentrate that, if dumped near shore, could greatly affect the salinity of the water and consequently endanger Santa Cruz’s ecosystem. One solution to the environmental problems that land-based desalination plants pose is the use of a desalination boat in the Monterey Bay. According to Water Standard, a desalination boat would sidestep the intake/output problem by running the whole plant away from the shore, which would minimize sea life intake and its effect on the water’s salinity. Eric Russel, executive director of the Santa Cruz-based Aquatic Protection Agency, says that desalination poses one of the most puzzling problems for environmentalists."Desalination is one of the most complex environmental issues around," Russel said. "There’s a lot of history with global warming and oil spills, but not much about desalination. It’s hard to take a stance."The main role of the Aquatic Protection Agency is to investigate illegal polluters in the bay. For environmental protection, there are already certain legal restrictions regarding the intake of ocean water and disposal of the saline concentrate of desalination plants. However, it is unknown whether any potential harms lie beyond simply the minimum legal restrictions on desalination plants.According to Linette Almond, the Santa Cruz deputy water director, there will be plenty of preparation and testing before anything is done."If everything went perfectly, we might have a plant operating in 2012," Almond said.Currently, Santa Cruz’s population of 90,000 uses about 16 million gallons of water per day and 3.8 billion gallons per year-five percent of which is used by UC Santa Cruz. By the year 2030, Santa Cruz is expected to use about 5.1 billion gallons of water per year. A desalination plant could potentially produce up to 3 million gallons of water a day. From 1976 to 1977, Santa Cruz suffered one if of its worst droughts to date and since then the city has not added to its water supply. Almond called a foreseeable water problem potentially devastating. Although the potential environmental effects of desalination are hazardous, it may represent the only practical solution to a growing population."Right now it’s just a concept," Almond said. "We have a lot of issues to work out before anything can happen."