By TOM HONIG
You have to feel some sympathy for anyone trying to follow the debate over a proposed desalination plant in Santa Cruz.
It's like trying to watch a sports event in which one team is playing hockey and the other is playing basketball.
City leaders -- as they have for the past 30 years or so -- are trying to figure out how to provide an adequate supply of water. And, the neighbors to the south in the Soquel Creek Water District are trying to stop an overdraft of their water supply. (Santa Cruz relies mostly on surface water while Soquel relies on wells. That's important to keep in mind.)
Meanwhile, opponents of desal aren't really focused on water concerns. They're fighting against desal and then secondarily addressing what to do about a lack of water. (They're seriously concocting a scheme in which the two thirsty districts would somehow share water and that would solve the problem.)
Shifting the topic of conversation is an old political trick. Opponents are making desal the topic. They're not focused on the real problem -- not enough water. Actually, it's a bit more complex than that. Santa Cruz's water supply is dependent on rainfall. Rain water in winter can be stored in facilities like Loch Lomond and then used all summer during the dry period. But in years (like this one) when there's little rain, the water supply dwindles. A couple years of that, and you can't water your garden or even flush your toilet very often.
But some on the opposition say that a desal project is actually about allowing growth -- at UC Santa Cruz in particular. And that's where another false debate is raging. One can argue about whether UCSC should grow, but trying to limit growth by withholding services really doesn't make much sense.
As for the Soquel Creek district's needs -- they differ from Santa Cruz's. Soquel Creek wants the desal program because in normal, wetter years, the water could be shipped off to Mid-County, where it can recharge the groundwater supply.
Again, desal foes don't want to see that.
The problem is that they continue fighting about the desal project and tend to ignore the pressing need for a more secure water supply. In fact, they even characterize the desal project as being "rushed through," even though it has been a topic of study for three decades. Even now, while an environmental impact report and other studies are proceeding, desal is being carefully and slowly considered.
The question of whether to build a desal plant is one worth studying. Any actual project is still months away and is still subject to a lot of discussion.
But here's' what that discussion should be about: the water supply. That's the subject at hand, even if one group has made it all about the construction of a desal plant.