Ratepayers Pay to Campaign for Desal

How Do You Feel About the Water Department Using Ratepayer Dollars to Campaign for Desalination?
Santa Cruz Water Department customers recently received a mailing featuring a lead article entitled, “Desal is Important to Our Water Future”. Some residents are not pleased. They say that’s using ratepayer money to campaign for desalination, when the decision on whether to proceed with desalination will not be made until the completion of an Environmental Impact Report. The following is an open letter to the City Council from citizens expressing that concern. If you would like to sign on to this letter, make a comment on this post, or send us an email

Dear City Council Members,
We write today in support of transparent, accountable, responsible, and intellectually-honest governance. These are democratic values we all share, especially in a progressive community like Santa Cruz County.

Water is life. There can be no doubt or debate about the need for our community to ensure an ongoing water supply that is cost-effective, sustainable, reliable, and environmentally responsible. While today and in the past we have enjoyed adequate supplies (despite occasional droughts), continually-changing circumstances—such as anticipated growth rates, new diversion guidelines, rising energy costs, climate change, and reduced government revenues, to name a few—demand that we be thoughtful about how we work to ensure that those supplies remain adequate into the reasonably-foreseeable future.

The information being provided to the public regarding our water future by our elected officials and by taxpayer-paid staff and consultants does not align with our shared democratic values. Rather, materials and information provided to us (paid for by our taxpayer and/or ratepayer funds) openly advocate for a single, pre-determined path forward for our water system: desalination. As a result, it is impossible for the citizenry to form and hold an informed opinion on one of the most important local decisions this generation will make.

The recent mailing to water customers was drafted, produced, and distributed using ratepayer funds (On Feb 22, 2011 the City Council approved a contract renewal with consultant, Kennedy/Jenks, with a $185,000 line item for “Outreach and Communications Assistance”.

In the mailing we see:
• Open advocacy for a given position to the exclusion of viable supply-side alternatives (such as additional surface and aquifer storage) Example, Article: “Desal is Important to Our Water Future”
• The “shutdown” of discussion based on asserting conclusions as if they were fact. Example: “If the City of Santa Cruz were to take no action to develop a supplemental water supply, such as a desalination plant….during severe drought there would be drastic curtailments of water deliveries, [etc].”
• Factual errors of omission Example: A statement is made declaring that the Santa Barbara desal plant [never used since 1992] is “insurance” in case of supply issues. As reported in the press, (Santa Barbara Independent, May 21, 2009), the City of Santa Barbara has determined re-starting the plant would cost (at least) $20MM and would take 16 months. This key fact, which undermines the utility of the plant as meaningful insurance, is omitted.
• Factual errors of commission Example: Assertions regarding the prevalence of desalination, in the US and worldwide. While the newsletter states that desalination is used in 120 countries and identifies several facilities in California, the newsletter does not specify which of these examples are municipally-owned and technologically-comparable to what is proposed here (sea-water reverse-osmosis for potable water). Our citizens deserve to be aware of how prevalent, cost-effective, and reliable the proposed approach is.
• Obfuscation Example: Discussion of energy use and costs of desalination, which excludes any objective information about energy use per unit of water and associated costs. While the newsletter refers the reader to the SCWD website for more information, that information is in a 34-page technical white paper; this key information should be more accessible and clear.

We note further that much of this content is drawn from the SCWD website, where these same messages are permanently and publicly available online, again at taxpayer/ratepayer expense.

As a model for how citizens could be informed about the choices they face, consider the typical voters’ pamphlet that registered voters receive at election time. In it, for each issue on the ballot, you will find (1) an objective presentation of the facts, (2) arguments in favor of the proposal, and (3) arguments against the proposal. By comparison, SCWD’s communications consistently provide only arguments in favor of the proposal (based on cherry-picked and partial information). This use of public monies to advocate for a given policy is not consistent with a democratic process in which our agencies and elected officials provide citizens with information on the choices we face and allow citizens to make an informed decision.

Further, in a public venue, we hear this from SCSD2 representative, Dan Kriege:
“It’s prudent to get a project under design and out to bid as soon as possible. The more time we take, the more exposure we put this project to among the people who don’t like it.” [Santa Cruz Sentinel, 21 April 2011.] This sentiment is at variance with the “Desal is important to our future” cover note on the Newsletter, where he and Don Lane claim to support “a thorough examination of all the facts and issues.” For a public official to suggest speeding things along to keep the public from being informed about a public project suggests the opposite of democracy. It also ignores the letter and spirit of the CA Environmental Quality Act, which requires consideration of project alternatives.

We request that you, our elected officials, immediately reconstitute our community’s conversation about our water future so that it meets our shared values of transparency, accountability, responsibility, and intellectual honesty. Specifically:

• Engage an objective third party (perhaps the League of Women Voters or Ecology Action) to conduct the “education and informational outreach” related to choices for our water future, rather than the currently-engaged consultants.
• Charge them with ensuring that the information that is provided to the public is objective, fact-based (and fact-checked), complete, accessible, up-to-date, and accurate.
• In addition to that objective information, allow advocates for a variety of approaches to provide arguments on the merits, with equal time and space for supporters and opponents.

Only in this manner can the community be sufficiently informed and thereby enabled to make the right decision on this key issue.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Doug Engfer, Jean Brocklebank, Paul Gratz, Karin Grobe, Rick Longinotti, Dorothy Johnson, Pegatha Hughes, Michael Levy, Jules Resnick, Sigrid McLaughlin, Bill Raff, Zack Schlesinger, Takashi Yogi, Jim Kleck, Diane Behling

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3 Responses to Ratepayers Pay to Campaign for Desal

  1. Joel Isaacson says:

    don’t like being railroaded.

  2. Dan Forshner says:

    You have my permission to sign on to the previous letter. Thank-you for the valued Info. Dan Forshner Santa Cruz

  3. Lawrence Johsens says:

    No more should be needed to be said to have the Council put a stop to how public monies are being used to inform the public about the desal issue, since it is still an issue and not a settled decision, except in the minds of those putting out the information. If the Council and especially the public were to consider the full picture of desal–the costs of construction, and especially the continued costs of operation and maintenance–a more thorough consideration of the multitude of proven ways that exist to conserve water might be engaged in before the Council decides one way or the other.

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