A show of hands from Santa Cruzans identifies those who support searching for alternate methods of water conservation rather than building the proposed desalination plant. Photo by Sal Ingram.
Photo by Sal Ingram.

Updated 4/20/2011 at 11:50pm.

The Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Water Department’s Habitat Conservation Plan on April 5. The vote brings the desalination plant’s incorporation one step closer.

Water overconsumption has been an ongoing problem in Santa Cruz. Overconsumption threatens endangered species of fish, including the Coho and steelhead salmon species, in the San Lorenzo River and other northern coast streams. The city has postulated several solutions to this problem, including regulation of water uptake in local streams to create optimal living conditions for these fish.

In 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service accused the city of violating the Endangered Species Act by harming fish populations with a high level of water consumption. The Water Department formulated the Habitat Conservation Plan to protect these species of fish. The plan will take an agreed upon amount of water out of local streams. The building of a desalination plant would provide an additional supply of water to accommodate the city’s projected needs.

Desalination is not new to Santa Cruz. A year-long pilot program was taken on from 2008 to 2009 for a desalination plant at UC Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Lab, and was generally considered a success.

In his presentation at the April city council meeting, Santa Cruz water director Bill Kocher emphasized that stream regulation is necessary for optimal fish population living conditions. He also said the introduction of a desalination plant is necessary.

“Desalination provides a safety net,” Kocher said. “Just knowing that we have it allows us to pull comfortably [from] the lake.”

The plant is projected to filter 2.5 million gallons of water a day, and is estimated to cost up to $99 million to install. It is expected to be in operation by 2015, and has the capacity to cost up to $130 million.

Kocher proposed the Habitat for Conservation plan, which was later approved. His plan has yet to be put into action, but will be presented to NOAA Fisheries in the next step of the process.

Opponents argue that there are better alternatives to the installation of this plant. Financial and environmental impacts are pressing areas of concern. Anti-desalination advocates are pressing for more sensible conservation methods.

Rick Longinotti, a spokesman for the Santa Cruz organization Desal Alternatives, said the city should work to lower the demand for water, which is projected to increase exponentially in the coming years.

“There is an alternative to becoming hooked on desal,” he said. “We need to set ourselves a goal to continue the downward trend in water use, rather than plan for expansion of water use.”

This predicted increase in water demand is due in part to an increase in student enrollment at UCSC. Longinotti said other college campuses have better models for water conservation.

“There is a building called Oakes Hall at Vermont Law School that makes use of compostable toilets, using an average of only 16 gallons of water a day,” Longinotti said.

Other alternatives include water exchanges with neighboring cities and water-neutral development plans.

Third-year environmental studies major Nick Evans attends a sustainability class at UCSC. He said the installation of a desalination plant would have various consequences for the environment.

“Fish population and fish larva will be sucked into the pipes [and] large amounts of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere,” Evans said. “People are blinded to the consequences. Installation of this plant will only serve as a Band-Aid-like situation.”

Evans pointed to Australia as an example of an effective model for water conservation.

“Australia has pursued conservation in an aggressive fashion,” he said. “I attribute the main catalyst of success there to [Australia’s] progressive push of social marketing. They realized that the public’s opinions and actions don’t always line up due to factors that affect convenience.”

The Habitat for Conservation plan is still in premature stages, and it will take some time to finalize the plans. For now, the debate continues.