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The Road Not Taken
by Rick Longinotti, SC Desal Alternatives
Monday Mar 13th, 2017 5:26 PM
Tomorrow at 7pm the Santa Cruz City Council will hear about the progress that the Water Department is making on the plan for water security by 2025. It seems like a good time to look at "the road not taken".
san_lorenzo_river.jpg
Imagine if the City and Soquel Creek Water District had moved forward with the desalination plant and a new plant was constructed. Imagine the plant was completed and ready for operation in June of 2015. Here's what a report might read:

In 2015 many city customers were eagerly looking forward to the additional water from the desal plant. The low rainfall in winter 2015 means that residential water rationing will stay in effect for a second year.

Then as the plant is about to begin operation, the Water Department announces the news. The desalination plant will not begin operations as planned due to a large bloom of toxic algae. On June 15th the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced : “The bloom stretches from the Central California Coast north to Washington and possibly Alaska, and involves some of the highest concentrations of the natural toxin domoic acid ever observed in Monterey Bay.”

Desalination plants in the Middle East often shut down on account of algae blooms. Algae in ocean water can foul the delicate membranes of a desal plant, resulting in microscopic holes in the membranes.

The plant startup is delayed until the algae bloom subsides in late 2015. The rains have finally come and Santa Cruz doesn’t need the water from the desal plant. So the plant operates to serve Soquel Creek Water District, according to the operating agreement.

During the winter of 2015-16 there are billions of gallons of water flowing down the San Lorenzo River out to sea. A small fraction of that water could be used to serve Soquel Creek District. But the desal operating agreement calls for the desal plant to be run 365 days a year. In January through April when there is more than enough water in the river to satisfy Santa Cruz, Soquel Creek, and migrating fish, the desal plant continues to run, at ten times the energy intensity of the existing water supply.

We can be grateful that we didn’t take the desalination road. The solution that the WSAC committee and City Council adopted will save energy and money. It is based on an accurate analysis of the problem: We have inadequate storage. So we’re straining to cut our consumption during low rainfall periods (not all bad---keep reading).

The City’s adopted policy is to store water in depleted aquifers. In so doing we will raise the groundwater level in the aquifers and enhance the spring-fed stream flow of the San Lorenzo River watershed. This is a win for fish and wildlife at the same time as a win for our human community.

The Soquel Creek Water District is faced with a decision that is very similar to the one that Santa Cruz faced. Do they invest in an expensive and energy-intensive recycled water project? Or is there a better way to replenish the aquifers that are at risk of seawater intrusion?

The Soquel District can now consider a factor that no water manager could have predicted: the beneficial impact of the drought on our water consumption. Soquel Creek District reduced their pumping from 4200 to 3000 acre-feet per year. That's very near the pumping goal that the District adopted several years ago. No one thought that goal was attainable without a supplemental supply. The District has since revised the pumping goal even lower. But what if Soquel District customers are supported to continue their conserving ways? Then the goal becomes attainable with the addition of water transferred from Santa Cruz.

Or Soquel District could take the other road---an energy intensive recycled water plant that needs to run 365 days a year---even when the waters of the San Lorenzo are rushing out to sea.

In this era of massive human impact on our life-sustaining natural systems, it's best to optimize existing resources before expanding capacity, whether it's water systems, highways, or parking garages. Let's speak up.


-Rick Longinotti
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Was desal a racket?GMonday Mar 13th, 2017 5:55 PM