By Daniel Correia

The Soquel Creek Water District has agreed to split the bill with the city of Santa Cruz on a desalination plant to help supplement the area’s water supply during peak drought years. As the plant has an estimated price tag of $40 million, sharing the cost is a good idea, according to Soquel Creek Water District general manager Laura Brown.

“It makes absolute sense to both agencies,” said Brown, whose agency serves Santa Cruz County south of Capitola. “In looking at the various options, building a desalination plant with Santa Cruz came on top in terms of feasibility and cost.”

Desalination, a process whereby ocean water is turned into fresh water, was not the city’s preferred method of supplementing its drinking supply, according to City Councilmember Mike Rotkin.

“Desalination was our last choice because it’s expensive,” Rotkin said. “After doing traditional conservation methods and cutting our water usage, we had to turn to a desalination plant.”

Currently, work is being done to build a $4 million test desalination facility at the city’s Long Marine Lab on the Westside. Half of the cost for the test facility is being funded by a federal grant, while the other $2 million will be split between the City of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District.

The exact cost and opening date of the finalized desalination plant depend heavily on resulting energy and water quality details of the test facility. An oversight committee composed of Rotkin, fellow Santa Cruz City Councilmember Ed Porter, and two representatives from the Soquel Creek Water District has been formed to analyze the results of the test facility as well as other environmental studies.

“It probably couldn’t be built before 2012,” Santa Cruz City Water Director Bill Kocher said of the permanent desalination plant. “Forty million dollars is a loose cost. It could be a lot more or a lot less. A lot of the needs are going to be determined by the results of the test facility.”

Currently, Santa Cruz gets all its water from the San Lorenzo River. Its population of 90,000 uses about 14 million gallons of water a day in the summer and about 8 billion in the winter.

In the late 1970s, Santa Cruz suffered one if of its worst droughts ever, but the city has not added to its water supply since. A desalination plant would only be used by the city during drought periods, which occur naturally every seven to ten years.

The Soquel Creek Water District is currently dependent on groundwater pumped up through wells. Due to over-pumping, there have been recent signs of saltwater intrusion in the wells, which could potentially make retrieved water unusable. The Soquel Creek Water District would use the desalination plant occasionally each year to rest their pumps and replenish their water supply.

“We would use a smaller portion of the plant on a year-round basis,” said district manager Brown. “[Santa Cruz] would only need the plant during the peak periods of a drought. Because they will have different times they would need the plant, sharing makes perfect sense.”