Desalination EIR Due in Santa Cruz Desalination Project

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Desalination EIR Released for Santa Cruz Desalination Project

by Duran Fiack and Lily Forest

Duran Fiack is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental Studies at UCSC.

Lily Forest just completed a B.A. in Environmental Studies from UCSC, and currently assists Duran Fiack in his research on desalination and public opinion.  She hopes to continue research around climate change and politics in her career.

The continued growth in global population and economic development, has contributed to a steadily increasing demand for freshwater resources[1]. Additionally, the effects of climate change on the hydrologic cycle and the over-exploitation of groundwater aquifers present significant water management challenges by impacting the spatial and temporal availability of water resources[2]. These impacts are particularly critical for water managers of coastal communities, where unsustainable water consumption and the effects of multiple dry years increases the stress of water supply by decreasing surface water availability and increasing the threat of saltwater intrusion into the overexploitation of groundwater supplies[3]. In order to ensure the availability of water for current and future needs, efficient, and sustainable water production strategies must be introduced[4]. While soft path approaches to conserve the use of available freshwater resources through demand-side management may provide long-term solutions to the variability in water supply resources, the need for alternative freshwater supplies is becoming essential to avoid involuntary water restrictions and service interruptions to domestic water supplies[5].

For more than twenty years, the Santa Cruz Water Department (SCWD) and the Soquel Creek Water District (SqCWD) of Santa Cruz County, California have been working together to produce a reliable and sustainable freshwater management plan for the 140,000 residents and businesses located within their service territories[6].  In 2010 SCWD and SqCWD (scwd2) began hosting monthly Desalination Task Force meetings and, as an initial step in the state-mandated environmental review process, produced a Notice of Preparation (NOP) for an Environmental Impact Report regarding the production of a Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant. The proposed project would help the two agenciesmeet the water needs of Santa Cruz County by offsetting the need for groundwater withdrawals in SqCWD and providing a supplemental supply of scarce surface water supplies during prolonged periods of drought in SCWD[7]. Following the release of the NOP, a coalition of environmental advocacy and political activist groups began to speak out against the proposed project, advocating alternatives to desalination such as increased conservation, a water-neutral growth policy, and increased interregional collaboration for water transfers. The primary issues that motivate opposition to the proposed project include: 1) increased energy consumption and energy intensity required to operate the project, 2) increased rates for water users served by scwd2, 3) potential negative impacts to marine life from water intake and effluent, and 4) water quality and reliability. The coalition coauthored an initiative, and led a local political campaign to amend the Charter of the City of Santa Cruz so that voter approval is required prior to the adoption of a desalination facility in the City.  The EIR, due to be released this spring, will be the primary official document that addresses the concerns raised by desalination opponents.

Desalination has become a common approach to water treatment throughout the world and is likely to be widely deployed in California in the coming decades. As of 2006, there were over 20 proposed desalination projects along the California coastline[8]. Desalination offers an opportunity for urbanized areas to combat the effects of coastal and inland water shortages, water degradation, supply variability and supply vulnerability.  Desalination technology is rapidly evolving. Thus, an investigation of the potential costs and benefits of adopting desalination technology as a water supply alternative is warranted. In July 2012 the Center for Integrated Water Research released a report, Developing a Tool to Guide State and Local Desalination Planning: A comprehensive Economic and Environmental Framework to Fully Assess the Benefits and Costs of Desalination. The project, funded by a California Proposition 50 grant and administered by the Department of Water Resources, sought to identify and categorize the costs and benefits of desalination technology adoption in California. The specific goals of the project were to: 1) produce a comprehensive understanding of the potential costs and benefits of related to the adoption of desalination technology in California, 2) make those insights available to a wide range of Californians in an easily-accessible way, 3) test the findings against existing desalination projects, and 4) identify research needs, especially those related to ecological economics and desalination. The project produced the following recommendations to consider when discussing investment in desalination technology as a water supply alternative in the state:

  1. Use Desalination Planning Issues Matrix (PIM):  PIM is an extensive reference library generated by CIWR, to provide policy makers and interest groups with extensive and well-organized information. PIM can be accessed at
  2. Mitigation of Desalination Impacts: Mitigation of the potential impacts of desalination facilities begins with careful planning and guidance by elected officials with the help of engineers, financial experts and public participation.
  3. Further Study of Desalination in the Inland Empire: The Inland Empire has the most important integrated desalination project in California. In particular, the project’s “brine line” transports byproducts from the desalination process 70 miles, from the project’s inland location to the ocean for disposal. Studying the costs and benefits of this method of inland desalination and brine disposal to see if it is feasible for other areas is important prior to consideration of similar projects in other inland regions.
  4. Study State-Level Natural Resources Bureaucratic Reform: The state should study whether natural-resource-oriented agencies should become task-oriented bureaucracies. Reorganization of state agencies could simplify the assemblage of teams of experts to address multi-resource-management issues, and solve the current problem of minimal oversight and accountability of specialist offices and agencies.
  5. Study of Intervenor Support Systems: A study that examines the process of project review in light of the competing societal values of efficiency and participation could lead to a reform of the Intervenor procedures in order to streamline the public decision and review processes. Streamlining this process would benefit the state and ratepayers.
  6. State-wide Ordering of Priorities for Uses of the Ocean, and Methods for Trading Off Uses: Targets for ocean restoration and protection should be set, and a process for ranking ocean-use priorities, in which the highest priorities are addressed first, should be developed, studied and considered for implementation.
  7. Desalination and Global Warming: Desalination should be recognized as a leading technology for adaptation to the hydrological impacts of global warming.
  8. Desalination Investment: Desalination R&D investments has largely been led by private companies. The state should encourage desalination R&D partnerships that help build homegrown manufacturing and product design firms[9].

As California considers the next steps in securing clean water for its residents, new research and updated legislation on desalination will continue to give decision makers more options in expanding sources of fresh water.

To view the entire Developing a Tool to Guide State and Local Desalination Planning: A comprehensive Economic and Environmental Framework to Fully Assess the Benefits and Costs of Desalination Report please visit the CIWR website:

The Center for Integrated Water Research plans to hold public meetings to discuss the EIR released in May.  These meetings will help explain the EIR and provide a discussion forum for residents and ratepayers.

[1] Morrison, J., Morikawa, M., Murphy, M., and P. Schulte. 2010. Water scarcity and climate change: growing risks for businesses and investors. A Ceres report, http://www. Accessed on December 1, 2012.

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[3] El Saliby, I., Okour, Y., Shon, H.K., Kandasamy, J., and In S. Kim. 2009. “Desalination plants in Australia, review and facts.” Desalination 247: 1-14.Elliott, E., J. L. Regens, and B. J. Seldon. 1995. “Exploring Variation in Public Support for Environmental Protection.” Social Science Quarterly 76 (1): 41–52.

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[5] Dawadi, S., and S. Ahmad. 2012. “Evaluating the impact of demand-side management on water resources under changing climatic conditions and increasing population.” Journal of Environmental Management xxx: 1-15.

[6] City of Santa Cruz Water Department, City of Santa Cruz 2005 Urban Water Management Plan, February 2006.

[6]City of Santa Cruz Water Department, Water Shortage Contingency Plan, March 2009.

[7] City of Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District, Regional Seawater Desalination Project Notice of Preparation of an Environmental Impact Report, November 2010.

[8] Cooley, Heather, Peter H. Gleick, and Gary Wolff. 2006. "Desalination, With a Grain of Salt: A California Perspective." Pacific Institute.

[9] Center for Integrated Water Research, Developing a Tool to Guide State and local Desalination Planning: A Comprehensive Economic and Environmental Framework to Fully Assess the Benefits and Costs of Desalination, July 2012.