Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane explains the possibility of a desalination plant in Santa Cruz's future. The project is still in the planning phase, but it could solve the area's water shortage problem. Photo by Sal Ingram.

The Santa Cruz City Council approved the continuation of a contract with an environmental impact desalination consultant last week. Desalination has been in the works for decades now, and for Santa Cruz County it may serve as a feasible source of water in a city that just experienced its second driest December in history.

The plant is projected to produce 2.5 million gallons a day, and comes with a price tag of nearly $100 million. The cost will be split between Santa Cruz and Soquel County water districts, with Santa Cruz paying 59 percent of the bill. Cost aside, it will take some time for a desalination plant to become a reality in Santa Cruz, as controversies come with its construction.

The final decision on whether to construct the plant will likely be voters’. For now, the plant’s construction is still being negotiated by environmentalists and city council members.

“We’re in the development stage,” said Heidi Luckenbach, Santa Cruz desalination program coordinator.

This stage includes determining all the effects and consequences the plant will have on the community and the environment.

“Part of the process is thinking through how to make it the most environmentally sound project it can be,” said Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane.

Several environmental concerns arise out of the plant’s use.

“It would take a lot of energy to operate,” Lane said.

It is possible, however, the high use of energy can be offset by renewable energy, said Brent Haddad, UC Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies.

Other concerns include the pollution the desalination plant would produce and the negative effect it may have on marine life.

“Forcing water through tightly meshed membranes produces greenhouse gasses,” Haddad said. “There are also risks it will create a zone that it is hard for sea lions to live in.”

A test was conducted by the city of Santa Cruz several years ago in which a small-scale desalination plant was examined to test its effects on marine life.

“The test was enormously successful in eliminating any negative effects on marine life,” Lane said.

Due to the county’s drought, a new source of water — whether it be a desalination plant or an alternative to it — is something that deserves attention, Lane said.

“We have a water problem,” he said. “It seems pretty clear that we need an additional supply and this is the most obtainable and feasible supply opportunity that I’ve seen.”

If the drought were to continue, Santa Cruz would face some tough decisions about water use. Businesses would have a hard time operating at full capacity and the community may have to begin rationing water, Lane said.

“We’d have to start cutting back in severe ways,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons desal is being considered. If this year continues to be as dry as it is, and next year is similarly dry, we could be in a world of trouble.”

Directives from both the state and federal government require less water be taken from local Santa Cruz rivers and streams in hopes of sustaining the salmon population. Reducing water levels is harmful to the salmon indigenous to the San Lorenzo River and surrounding local streams.

A large reservoir and the San Lorenzo River make up most of the water supply to Santa Cruz, and with the addition of a desalination plant, the depletion of both these sources would be about 25 to 33 percent lower.

“[The desalination plant] is supplemental to Santa Cruz,” Luckenbach said.

The reservoir and the streams will always be a source of water for Santa Cruz. Proponents of construction say the intent of the plant is not to provide for the total water supply, but to give the county a back-up plan in times of drought.

“Having a desal plant is like buying insurance,” Lane said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money to build the desal, but the question is, what is the cost if we don’t build it?”