Santa Cruz’s search for a supplemental water supply goes back decades. The city has long needed something, other than groundwater it relies on, to carry it through times of drought or other cutbacks. The decision to build a small desalination plant was made years ago, but now some residents say they want the final say in that plan.
This Election Day Santa Cruz City voters will be casting their ballots on Measure P. It would require that residents get a vote before the city approves, permits or funds a desalination plant. Now here’s where voters might start to scratch their heads. Right now that vote is going to happen regardless of whether Measure P passes or fails. “The city council already voted unanimously to require a citizen’s vote before desal is implemented,” said Mike Rotkin, union organizer and former Santa Cruz Mayor. He’s against Measure P. He says getting it on the ballot has been a waste of taxpayer money since a vote is already guaranteed. “None of the current candidates for public office are opposed to this citizen’s vote. Everybody supports it. All the council members support it. It’s impossible for me to imagine in the city of Santa Cruz any city council that would take away from people the right to vote over this issue,” said Rotkin.
But Rick Longinotti can imagine it. He’s the spokesman for the Right to Vote on Desal Coalition. Since its unknown when the desalination project will be ready for a public vote, it’s also unknown who will be on the seven member city council at that time. So Longinotti says a yes vote on Measure P is the only real guarantee the people of Santa Cruz will get a vote on the project before it can be completed. “We decided to go ahead with measure P because the council ordinance can be overturned just by four members of the city council in some future date. And measure P could not be overturned except by another vote of the people,” said Longinotti. He doesn’t want to see a desalination plant in Santa Cruz. He’d rather the city explore alternatives like sharing water with neighboring districts and increased conservation. But he worries these ideas are being ignored because so much time and money has already been invested in the desalination project. “There’s been about $14-million already spent on pre-construction costs. That’s just in studying the plant. That’s really another reason why it’s really hard to divert their attention because there’s been so much invested that it’s got a lot of momentum,” said Longinotti.
Right now, the proposed desalination plant is in the environmental review process. It's part of a larger water plan for the city of Santa Cruz that involves conservation, curtailment and this small 2.5-million gallon a day plant -- a partnership with the Soquel Creek Water District. The total cost to build it is about $115 million. Linette Almond is the city’s Deputy Water Director. She says this plan has been in development for more than a decade and right now there is no plan B. “When I say we’d probably start over, we’re looking at probably another ten to fifteen years before there’s even an alternative out there to pursue. And then to implement a project is another decade or two, so it would really be a shame I think for the community. But the community has a right to say,” said Almond. On election day, Santa Cruz City voters will decide whether measure P needs to pass to have that say.