Anti-desal activist Rick Longinotti had a lot to be happy about on Nov. 6.
Activist Rick Longinotti had a lot to smile about on election night at the Measure P party, held at the De Anza mobile home park.
His friend Micah Posner was about to secure a city council seat, and Measure P, Longinotti’s Right to Vote on Desal measure, had won by a convincing majority—72 percent. The measure, which was basically the same as a city ordinance passed last February, says leaders must take their controversial desalination to voters before breaking ground on the controversial $120 million-plus plant.
As the vote tally grew, so did the ambition of the anti-desal camp.
Earlier in the evening, Right to Vote treasurer Mathilde Rand had characterized voters’ statement in passing Measure P as “We just want the right to vote.” But as it became clear it was obviously a landslide, Longinotti said “This changes everything.”
“City council will know they can’t win a vote on desalination,” he said.
Three days later, Longinotti reiterated his confidence in a mass email: “Since 71% of the voters in Santa Cruz passed Measure P, the prospect of voters ultimately approving a desal project seems iffy,” he wrote.
Desal supporters say that’s just typical posturing by the wining side. “It’s pretty common after the election to interpret everyone else’s vote in their own interest,” says Mayor Don Lane, a supporter of the proposed desalination plant. Lane proposed the separate city ordinance, which also guarantees an election on the plant, possibly as soon as June 2014. “I think it’s normal post-election commentary.”
But he could be underestimating his adversaries on this issue. Longinotti told the Weekly he doesn’t think the city councilmembers who will be up for reelection—Hilary Bryant and David Terrazas—can run in 2014 without opposing the proposed plant. Neither Bryant nor Terrazas know if they’ll run, but they deny that the Measure P results will fundamentally alter the shape of the race.
“Every time you’re running for office, there are so many issues. That’s going to be one of many,” Bryant says, adding that there are still a developments looming.
“There’s going to be a lot that’s going to happen between then and now, and that makes knowing impossible,” she says.
One thing everyone is waiting for is the plant’s environmental impact report’s first draft, which was originally due in September 2011, but has been delayed three times. Over the summer, desal program coordinator Heidi Luckenbach hoped it would come before Christmas, but now she says staff is aiming for March 2013. “We have a lot to do, however, between now and then. And with the holidays, this may slip another month,” Luckenbach wrote in an email.
The costs, both environmental and financial, might be unknown, but Lane says it wouldn’t be responsible for city leaders to abandon plans for desal now.
“People have said they want to make the decision,” Lane says. “So I think it’s important the city to give them as much information as possible on those choices.”
Longinotti, though, says it’s time for city council to start focusing on plan B, just in case voters don’t approve the plant. To Longinotti, “Plan B” means putting city resources into possible water swapping with Soquel Creek Water District, an option currently being studied by the county. It means increased conservation. And it means creating a water-neutral growth policy, like the one Soquel Creek Water District has—something that could have ramifications for UCSC and the tourism industry if done in Santa Cruz.
Longinotti worked hard to help water customers earn their shot at democracy, but now he says a vote isn’t his first choice.
“My personal feeling is I hope it doesn’t come to an election on desal,” Longinotti says, “because I think that the city has an opportunity now to work with these neighboring districts, to initiate pricing systems that encourage conservation and to initiate a water-neutral development program.”