The latest City Council meeting spotlighted both Santa Cruz’s water shortage problem and the opening of the San Lorenzo River for public use. Both issues were addressed via unanimous votes, which set forth the path to achieve a viable water solution, as well as the opening of the river.

Santa Cruzans filled city chambers on Nov. 26 eager to voice their concerns and excitement for the city’s next steps in addressing the opening of the river and finding alternatives to desalination — a water extraction process 72 percent of Santa Cruzans voted against on Nov. 6, 2012 via Measure P.

Anxious audience members wearing life jackets in support of the opening of the San Lorenzo River were pleased to hear Mayor Hilary Bryant begin the night with an overview of the plan, which assistant City Manager Tina Shull then presented.

Chapter 9.66 of Santa Cruz’s municipal code disallows public usage of the San Lorenzo River for activities such as kayaking, a rule Shull expressed confusion over. The Coastal Watershed Council worked with the city in opening the San Lorenzo River for a hugely successful paddle day in October, which attracted support for the plan.

“We have a lot to look into,” Shull said. “Safety, operational impacts, environmental effects, parking enforcement and other regulatory measures. What we’re asking for tonight is for the first step to start the exploration process with community stakeholders.”

Greg Pepping, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Council, addressed the council in support of engaging and activating the riverway. Pepping said while he is excited to undergo the process of opening the river, he understands there are some environmental concerns that need to be addressed.

“We would work with staff, community members and experts to get this right,” Pepping said. “You don’t just snap your fingers and change the ordinance.”

Responding to citizens’ concerns about negative environmental impacts, Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson made sure to note the project would explore these concerns and potentially publish an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

Council members unanimously passed the motion to create a task force consisting of city staff, police, representatives from the parks and recreation department, the Coastal Watershed Council and other partners interested in moving forward with the overturning of Chapter 9.66.

After a short recess, community members reconvened to focus on Santa Cruz’s water conservation issue. In 2005 the city voted to pursue desalination, though increasing public opposition alongside the passing of Measure P led the council to “reset” its water goals.

One by one, over 20 community members approached the stand to stress discomfort with desalination and rally their support behind a community-led task force set to explore alternatives in capturing and conserving water. The specifics for the creation of the task force, such as its size of 19 members, were critiqued and changed by the end of the evening.

Former Mayor Chris Krohn expressed his dissatisfaction with the city’s decision to continue exploring desalination as an option despite the passing of Measure P.

“I’m dismayed by the bureaucratese and forgetfulness reflected in the City Manager’s agenda report to the council,” Krohn said. “There is an apparent lack of awareness that keeping the EIR afloat is akin to telling the community you don’t really want or value our input. It certainly seems there may be a level of trust missing here. Why should the community participate in discussing our water future if the City Manager’s letter translates into full steam ahead into desalination?”

Krohn urged the council to resolve the circumstances around the EIR draft before moving forward with the desalination dialogue. He also responded to specifics in the proposed plan regarding the number of committee members as well as the proposed $150,000-$300,000 that would be spent on a facilitator who would oversee the group process.

“When the draft EIR is taken off the table, I urge the council to cut the number of committee members from 19 to a more manageable number, perhaps nine to 11,” Krohn said. “Do not put council members and water commissioners on the committee — they already have a platform for their voices. Let the community decide, as it is a citizens’ advisory committee, and allow the task force to select a facilitator of this process and limit the facilitation budget to $50,000.”

Rick Longinatti, chair of Santa Cruz Desalination Alternatives, also addressed the need to “heal a rift in our community” regarding the rebuilding of community trust, and described a three-step process in tackling the water issue.

“The committee needs to methodically address issues, develop options, identify solutions and strategies addressing our water security especially in drought and formulate appropriate recommendations for consideration by the council,” Longinatti said. “We request for the city not to conduct a public relations effort simultaneously with the deliberations of the advisory committee. In order to have a fair and credible process the committee needs to be in charge of its own messaging.”

The last hour of the meeting focused on amending the proposition to create the Water Supply Advisory Committee. Vice Mayor Lynn Robinson, who will become mayor on Dec. 10, will work with council member Micah Posner and Vice Mayor-designate Don Lane in recommending and choosing citizens for the panel of 14 members.

While the panel shrunk to 14 members, the option to add or subtract members will be available at the request of the panel and the independent facilitator, who the council will continue pursuing as a potential hire.

“I know the cost is daunting,” Lane said, “but if we want hundreds and hundreds of people throughout the community to participate in different meetings over the next few years, it’s not going to happen just because city staff sends notices to the newspaper. It’s going to be a very rigorous process.”