If you want to see the handwriting on the wall for our water future, you have only to look as far as Marin County. A year ago Marin was marching down the path to building a desalination plant when something stopped the march. A year ago Marin citizens began a petition campaign for a ballot initiative that would put the decision on whether to build the desal plant on the ballot. By April, 2010, the petition campaign was garnering the support of a variety of Marin organizations, including the Republican Party. At their April meeting, the Marin Municipal Water District Board put the desal project on hold. According to Board President, David Behar, “We have seen significantly lower demand for water in the last year and that has changed the calculation we use in determining when we move forward on desalination. Have we conserved our way out of the need for desalination, or is it the weather and economy? It may be there is not a need for a desalination plant.”
Lower water demand in Santa Cruz in the last several years is something the Water Department did not anticipate when it recommended to the City Council that they proceed with plans for a desalination plant. The 2003 Integrated Water Plan anticipated that water demand in 2010 would be 4.8 billion gallons, when in actuality, water production was 3.6 billion gallons in 2008, and even less in 2009 and 2010.
Marin’s parallels with Santa Cruz continue, with former water agency insiders publicly criticizing desalination. In 2009, James Fryer, the former Conservation Manager for Marin Municipal Water District, presented a report, Sustaining Our Water Future, that concluded that Marin could meet its water needs without a desal plant, through conservation strategies, fixing system leaks, and revised reservoir strategies. In Santa Cruz, retired Water Production Manager, James Bentley, publicly dissented from the Water Department in a Sentinel editorial on April, 2010. He wrote, “The City Council has been swayed into accepting a costly and environmentally unfriendly water solution when another viable and sustainable option exists which could minimize or eliminate the need for desalination.” Bentley has brought attention to a series of engineering reports dating back to 1985 which call for water exchanges with neighboring water districts that rely on ground water as a way to relieve aquifer overdraft in those districts and cope with droughts in Santa Cruz.
The ballot initiative requiring a vote on desalination passed on November 2nd.
For a description of Marin County residents’ campaign to require a referendum on desal, go to http://www.voteondesal.org