SANTA CRUZ -- The city's charter will be changed to put a controversial desalination measure on the ballot.
That's the order from voters, who on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed Measure P, a resident-led initiative to ensure a future say on the water supply project.
The measure garnered 71 percent support, which proponents say indicates strong concern about the city's plans to pump water out of the ocean and remove the salt to create up to 2.5 million gallons of drinking water each day.
"It could mean it would be very likely a desal vote will not pass," said Rick Longinotti, a founder of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives.
Desalination proponents disagree and are planning a campaign to convince ratepayers the plant is needed to protect the city from severe drought-driven rationing.
"We're going to outspend them (the anti-desal coalition) dramatically in 2014," said five-time former Mayor Mike Rotkin, referring to the year the plant is likely to come up for a vote.
City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson, who is likely to be mayor in 2014, said Measure P results make "a statement that the community is really focused on the desal issue."
Robinson joined council colleagues in passing an ordinance earlier this year granting voters the right to decide whether the plant would be built. But desalination opponents wanted to ensure the new council, a majority of whom were elected Tuesday, couldn't erase that right by overturning the ordinance. City charter changes can only be made by voters.
Measure P blocks the city from constructing the plant or going into bonded debt to pay for it without voter approval. The plant also will need the approval of an extensive host of regulators after an environmental review is released in the spring.
The plant is expected to cost an estimated $125 million to build. The city and its desalination partner, Soquel Creek Water District, already have spent about $11 million studying, planning and designing the facility since 2006.
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Asks voters to decide whether they want to change the city's charter to guarantee them the right to a future vote on desalination. It required a simple majority to pass.
36 of 36 precincts reporting