Illustration by Maren Slobody

A Santa Cruz City Council forum on the November ballot issue Measure P took place on Sept. 27 to address the pros and cons of building a desalination plant in Santa Cruz County. Desalination is a form of water reclamation that removes salt and other minerals from seawater to produce potable water.

If passed in the November elections, Measure P would prevent the city council from taking legislative action to approve the building of the plant without first putting it up for a county-wide vote.

Held on Sept. 27, the forum opened with moderator Rick Longinotti, member of the Community Water Coalition and co-founder of, highlighting the main issues surrounding desalination. One major issue was cost.

“In 2003 when the city council was presented with the idea of desalination, the total cost was going to be under $32 million dollars, and has gone up since then, quadrupled,” Longinotti said.

Longinotti also addressed the role UC Santa Cruz plays in the decision to build a desalination plant. UCSC growth will increase water demand in Santa Cruz County. In =2006, Santa Cruz passed Measure J, which barred UCSC from receiving city water until it entered a habitat conservation agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Although the measure was approved by 80 percent of voters, UCSC lawyers sued to overturn the vote, Longinotti said.

During the Q&A portion of the forum, Longinotti asked the city council candidates about their various stances on the issues of water conservation and desalination.

Cece Pinheiro, executive director of Special Parents Information Network and city council candidate, spoke out against the creation of a plant.

“We need to provide for current needs without degrading the ecosystem,” Pinheiro said. “We need to support future generations.”

Community organizer and city council candidate Micah Posner said it behooves Santa Cruz to research cleaner alternatives that do not generate greenhouse gases. Posner said that by examining only desalination as an alternative source of water, Santa Cruz is “putting all [its] eggs in one basket.”

Posner suggested increasing the use of greywater as a safer alternative to desalination. Greywater is recycled from various sources (except toilets) and purified by filtration through sand and soil, which can then be used for irrigation and gardening, reserving more clean water for bathing and human consumption.

Mayor Don Lane added his own input and said that if a severe drought occurred, people would be forced to cut back 35 percent of their water use. He suggested a test year in which the city would be forced to act as though it were in a state of drought.

Pamela Comstock, another candidate, said a test year would only work in theory.

“Our economy runs on tourism and would be affected by this test year,” Comstock said.

Later in the Q&A, resident Lily Victoria expressed her opposition to the creation of the desalination plant. She stated that during a stage four water shortage emergency a single family home would have access to 224 gallons of water per day, and during a stage five water shortage emergency, a single family would have access to 174 gallons per day. She said the amounts given for both scenarios would be more than adequate.

Not everyone is so optimistic. Brent Haddad, a UCSC professor of environmental studies who did not attend the forum, agreed that Santa Cruz will require alternative water sources in the event of a serious drought, but until an Environmental Investigation Report is published, there is no way of knowing for sure whether desalination is a viable alternative.

Haddad suggested that a good start in water conservation would be to educate UCSC students about the practical uses for greywater, and maybe convince UCSC to recycle used water from the dining halls for use in outdoor irrigation.