The Marina Coast Water District board isn’t sorry to see the desal controversy shift north.
While its counterparts in Santa Cruz have weathered criticism over participation in a pro-desalination organization, Marina Coast hasn’t heard a peep. Still, the district board voted 4-0 July 1 to drop its $5,000 annual membership in CalDesal three years after becoming a founding member.
CalDesal’s website describes the organization as a Sacramento-based advocate for desal development. Its coalition consists of 35 public agencies and 42 private firms, including RMC Water and Environment, a former contractor in the Monterey Peninsula’s now-defunct Regional Desalination Project.
CalDesal is listed in the Secretary of State’s lobbying directory and works for desal-friendly legislation and regulation.
Critics such as Santa Cruz-based land-use activist Gary Patton say membership in the advocacy group amounts to bias on the part of public agencies.
“The motivation for the desal industry is corporate profit, not the public interest,” Patton writes by email. “Cities and water districts should not be fronting for these private enterprises. If it ultimately makes sense for any of the local jurisdictions around the Monterey Bay to build a desalination plant, the agencies need to approach the industries involved as outside, corporate interests whose business it is to make money.”
But Santa Cruz Water Chief Bill Kocher, a CalDesal founder and board vice-president, says it’s inaccurate to call it a lobbying group. Rather, he says, it’s a consortium of agencies and consultants that pool their data, educate state decision-makers and work to reduce the permitting barriers to desal.
“It’s not like they’re wining and dining regulators,” he says. “We’re there when [regulators] have meetings, and we’re giving them access to all we’ve learned.”
Kocher adds that the decision about Santa Cruz’s own desal proposal will be made by the City Council, whom he says CalDesal leaders haven’t contacted. He notes the Santa Cruz Water District belongs to other advocacy groups, such as the Water Reuse Association and the California Urban Water Conservation Council. Marina Coast belongs to the Association of California Water Agencies.
Brian Lee, Marina Coast’s interim general manager, says he put the CalDesal renewal on the agenda because the district has taken a step back from desalination – in both its current plan for a small desal unit (the board voted in March to cancel a contract for services) and its participation in a larger regional desal project (Marina Coast was a partner in the Regional Desalination Project but is not a part of California American Water’s current proposal). He also notes that Soquel Creek Water District, faced with public criticism, dropped its own CalDesal membership in early June.
Lee says he’s not sure whether it’s appropriate for the district to belong to the narrowly focused advocacy group. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he says. “I thought it would be prudent for the board to discuss and make sure they still want to be a part of CalDesal.”
The board voted 4-0, with Director Howard Gustafson absent, to drop its membership. The discussion was brief and there was no public comment.
Board Chair Tom Moore says it just made financial sense: “It’s $5,000 that could be put to use somewhere else.”