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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Our office takes the Great Desal Water Taste Test, StoryCorps comes to Salinas to collect oral histories for posterity and Watsonville warily eyeballs the budget in a cash-strapped year.

The Great Desal Taste Test

It wasn't high tech, and the panelists weren't professionals. But it was blind, and everyone who was involved drinks water, so we figured our office taste test of water from the pilot desalination plant counted for something. Besides, we wanted to know what the future will taste like when the environmental apocalypse robs us of fresh water, leaving us dependent on liberating seawater from its component salts. Should we plan on bringing lemon and cucumber slices to that party?

With help from Jaime the intern, who set up the tasting and was the only one to know which water was which, four of us assembled to taste water from a variety of sources: an unfiltered Santa Cruz tap, bottled water from Pure Water of Santa Cruz, Fiji purchased at Trader Joe's and the pilot plant's desalinated water, couriered that very morning via Nalgene from the lobby of the Santa Cruz Water Department. We tasted, we swished, we made faces, we took notes. And the winners emerged: Fiji, followed by Pure Water, then tap, and finally the water our grandchildren will be drinking if they're lucky.

Not a ringing endorsement of the water source hailed as California's savior in the era of climate change. Two of the four tasters rated the desalinated water last, citing a "salty smell" (but notably "no salt taste") and the taste of chlorine. One person rated desal third (ahead of tap water), noting that it was "very soft." The fourth absolutely loved it and rated it No. 1, citing "more taste" and "smoother" mouthfeel.

To Nūz, it tasted more like tap water than tap water itself, which, believe it or not, spells success to the folks at the Water Department. "It does taste a lot like tap water," says desalination program coordinator Heidi Luckenbach. "They treat it through reverse osmosis and then take it to the lab and post-treat it, adding back some minerals to get it tasting like what people are used to. Part of the idea is not to have people notice a difference."

There's a good reason for that: in some neighborhoods, desal could almost completely replace tap water. Luckenbach explains that if the city of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District were to go in on a full-scale desal plant, the neighborhoods closest to the actual plant (which would most likely be on the Westside) would have a lot of desal flowing out their taps; farther away in the joint water system--think Aptos--there would be little if any desalinated water in the mix. Nevertheless, the plant's 2.5 million-gallon-a-day output would be helping the district stave off saltwater intrusion, a serious problem in midcounty since demand outstrips supply by about 15 percent. And during drought, the plant could help the city of Santa Cruz Water Department make up for the water not flowing into Loch Lomond and down the river.

But that's all a big if. The pilot plant at Long Marine Lab runs until April 13, at which point the big heads get together and figure out how to deal with touchy environmental issues like where to place the intake pipes in the ocean and how to dispose of the brine left over after the desal process. Luckenbach says that by summertime the city and the district should have some answers for the public, as well as information on costs and energy required to run a full-scale plant.

For now and through April 13, city and district water customers can satisfy their curiosity by tasting the desalinated drink for themselves. Coolers of it are available, with little paper cups, in the Santa Cruz Water Department lobby, 212 Locust St., Santa Cruz, and in the office of the Soquel Creek Water District, 5180 Soquel Dr., Soquel. Tasters are invited to fill out an online survey at


As the country continues to slog through the recession, it's only fitting that StoryCorps, the nonprofit oral-history-gathering project based in New York, is making a three-week pit stop in the heart of Steinbeck country. StoryCorps' silver Airstream trailer, itself a child of the 1930s, arrives in Salinas this Thursday as part of its cross-county mission to collect the stories of everyday Americans in their everyday struggles for eventual inclusion in a massive oral history housed in the Library of Congress. The trailer is equipped with a high-quality sound studio, and approximately 140 Monterey Bay area residents will have the opportunity to conduct and record interviews inside with a loved one. So far, 35,000 such sessions have been collected since 2003, and some of the most poignant bits have made it onto National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Sound intimidating?

"We really emphasize it's a conversation. We don't want anyone to feel the pressure that you have to be some kind of journalist or documentarian," says StoryCorps spokeswoman Marisa Karplus. "Be curious and ask things that you're genuinely curious about."

Her best advice: Bring someone you know well, like a family member or a spouse, and ask them questions like "What was the happiest moment of your life?" or "What is your proudest moment?" Though there will be facilitators with lots of advice, each 40-minute session is in truth a free-for-all; guests can ask anything they like, they can speak in any language they choose, they can even interview themselves.

The results, often heart-wrenching or hilarious, have made a reservation in the StoryCorps studio a hot commodity--half the reservations in Salinas have already been filled, and the second half will not be open until Friday, Feb. 27.

Local station KAZU-FM (90.3) will also be doing its own segment with the stories collected in Salinas. News director Krista Almanzan hopes a few locals who have no preconceived notions about the project will share their time along with hard-core StoryCorps fans--though she acknowledges that it can sometimes be tough to sell. "It's always such a hard thing to explain. It's an excellent opportunity to document your personal history or a loved one's," she says. "A lot of people ask us what we're looking for, what would be a great story, but that's not the goal. This is a personal experience." All participants receive a CD copy of their session, but be warned: the recording booth has been known to coax out never-before-heard stories and details, and the recordings have the uncanny ability to make grownups cry.

StoryCorps' MobileBooth will be at the National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas, Thursday, Feb. 26, until Saturday, March 21. Make free reservations by calling 800.850.4406 or visiting

Watsonville Counts the $ Signs

As the Watsonville City Council took its first look at what is sure to be a difficult 2009-10 budget on Feb. 17, community development interim director Marcela Tavantzis gave councilmembers a warning. "In this current fiscal year, three dollar signs [$$$] may not be a feasible project," she said.

She was referring to the way new initiatives proposed by city department heads and councilmembers are ranked, Zagat-guide style, with one, two, three {or more} dollar signs, based on their eventual cost to the city. "Three dollar signs is like $100,000 or more," she said.

City Manager Carlos Palacios agreed. "The budget is going to be so hard, we're going to be trying to hold onto [programs]," he said.

Nevertheless, department heads proposed several new projects in that ambitious $$$ range. The Redevelopment and Housing Department is pushing a "Revitalize Industrial Core" initiative that would provide city assistance to industries interested in opening in Watsonville--at a steep $$$$. Public Works is hoping for $$$ worth of funding for street maintenance. Community Development is anticipating legal costs for the Buena Vista housing plan to approach the $$$ mark. And Councilman Greg Caput submitted that he'd like to see a "Keep City Employees Working" initiative, another $$$ idea, to try to prevent layoffs.

"I do have a lot of confidence in our city staff. You've helped us out of a carry-over debt and we're starting over at zero," Caput said, turning in his seat to face the roomful of city employees behind him. "I don't want to see anybody laid off. I want to keep everybody working."

Among the less costly initiatives were plans to get high school student interns working in city offices and to enact a Styrofoam ban for Watstonville, both suggested by Councilman Luis Alejo.

Councilman Emilio Martinez refrained from suggesting anything new. "My thing is, let's keep as much as we can, let's look at every penny we can save, so we can keep the majority of people employed," he said. "That's my biggest priority."

Each individual councilmember has until the March 10 meeting to research and rank the list of new initiatives in order of preference, at which point the entire council will try to come to a consensus on which are most important to the city. Those decisions will be used to parcel out what few extra funds will be available in the coming fiscal year.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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