“Desalination and Alternatives: Water for a Thirsty County” – SCCBC Analysis of the County Grand Jury’s Report

By Robert Singleton, Policy Analyst, SCCBC

On June 17th the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury released a report on the water supply crisis affecting both the Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD) and Soquel Creek Water District (SqCWD). Entitled “Desalination and Alternatives: Water for a Thirsty County”, the report provides an overview of the problems facing both districts, a thorough analysis of potential solutions, and a critical assessment of both agencies efforts to date. In evaluating the severity of both districts’ problems, the Grand Jury states that both districts are in dire need of a supplemental supply, as conservation alone will not address the groundwater overdraft in SqCWD, or the drought vulnerabilities in SCWD. However, the Jury does recommend that both districts pursue additional conservation measures and other incremental solutions, like regional water transfers, to curtail supply problems in the short term.

In evaluating the progress of the SCWD2 proposed desalination facility, which was effectively tabled last September, the Grand Jury states that [it] “is the only available single alternative that can address in a timely manner all of the supplemental water needs of SCWD and SqCWD, while at the same time being immune to climate change.” It further recommends that both districts work to certify the draft EIR that was released last summer, so that some of the document’s findings can be be applied to other required research in the event that either agency decides against a joint desalination plant.

Additional findings conclude that the SCWD did not do enough to educate members of the public about the severity of the problem, which ultimately resulted in opposition groups forcing a halt to the process. In light of the passage of Measure P in 2012, the Grand Jury also recommends that the City of Santa Cruz hold a vote on the joint facility during the next available general election, as required by the measure.

As for alternatives, the report explores mandatory rationing, regional water transfers, a potential partnership with the Deep Water (DWD) desalination plant under consideration to be constructed in Moss Landing, recycled water, a replenishment district and the possibility of single district desalination. In evaluating each of these options the Grand Jury finds significant problems affecting all of them. In the context of recycled water, single district desalination, water transfers and a partnership with DWD, there are significant infrastructure and legal hurdles that need to be overcome that are either too expensive or not comprehensive enough to address the needs of both districts. In terms of a specialized water replenishment district, the Grand Jury recommends moving forward with this option, but does not see it as a viable alternative to a regional desalination project on its own. Mandatory rationing is seen as extremely difficult to implement, both from a logistical and cost perspective, and would cause significant harm to the local economy beyond the cost of implementation.

Full text version of the Grand Jury’s report/analysis of this issue