Recap from the WSAC Water Ideas Convention (City of Santa Cruz)

The Santa Cruz County Business Council has been paying close attention to the City of Santa Cruz Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC). Our appointed representative, Sid Slatter of Slatter Construction, has put in a tremendous amount of effort in both participating in the committee’s work and reporting back to us. We appreciate his dedication to the effort.

Recently WSAC conducted an experiment in community engagement by putting on an “Ideas Convention”, where over 25 members of the public presented their proposals for addressing our local water crisis. The convention was held in part because of the committee’s desire for public participation, but also to satisfy the consideration of a wide range of alternative options. The proposals were vetted through months of input, and the final results were presented in poster form during a day-long event. The proposals are also being hosted online at until the end of the month to provide ample opportunity for public input.

The convention, despite its unusual format, proved largely successful both in terms of public attendance and in evaluating new ideas. However, as with all new things, there was room for improvement. Specifically, the convention process suffered from two shortcomings that need to be taken into account when reviewing the results and applying them to future recommendations. 1) The event should have been publicized better, and as a result was likely limited to reaching few people who were not already engaged in the process. 2) The proposals themselves suffered from having many different formats, inconsistent metrics, and varied lengths, making it difficult for members of the public to provide meaningful input.

As exit polling shows, most of the attendees heard about the event through word of mouth and groups to which they belong. Fewer than 10 percent heard about the event through purchased newspaper or radio ads, and there were no feature articles or news stories written leading up to the event. This is surprising given how significant the topic of water is publicly, and how unique the event process was. The results of this lack of publicity yielded a vast majority of those who attended (80%) being already of aware of WSAC’s work, with many motivated by the same opposition groups that worked against the city’s previous desalination proposal.

In regards to the actual proposals, the diversity of ideas was both helpful and hindering, proving challenging to the casual observer. On one hand, the variety of ideas did satisfy the concerns about conducting a thorough exploration of supply alternatives. Additionally, the variety of ideas created a clear spectrum for public input, as some proposals were obviously more well thought out and well suited for addressing our community’s needs. However, because of the inconsistency in presentation format many of the proposals were not approachable to the general public. This is to be somewhat expected given the technical nature of the problem being addressed, but the proposals varied widely in terms of metrics used and presentation format.

All this said, the impact of the “ideas convention” will not be completely felt until WSAC has time to analyze all public feedback, dive into the feasible proposal options and assess whether the public feels true “ownership” over the process and outcomes.

Contributed by Robert Singleton, Policy Analyst