March 2, 2012
Monterey Herald
Monterey, California

Peninsula must quickly act on water

By RON WEITZMAN
Guest commentary

The current cease-and-desist order by the State Water Resources Control Board has put our community into a virtually Catch 22 bind. It prohibits Cal Am from drawing most of its draw from the Carmel River basin by the beginning of 2017. The major alternative source of water the state board suggests for the Peninsula is desalination, but Cal Am cannot pursue that option because county ordinance prohibits it from doing so without a public partner. The county requires a public agency develop the desalination plant that we need to ensure a drought-proof water supply.

Sound reasons support that requirement, not the least of which being up to a half billion dollars in savings to ratepayers, but no local public agency has stepped forward to do the job.

Although the state has created the problem, it is not responsible for resolving it because it created the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to do that.

Rather than resolving the problem by developing a drought-proof water supply, the district has spent most of the past 35 years trying to mitigate ravages to the river caused by Cal Am's over-pumping of its basin. Since 1983, the district has obtained the money to support that work from an assessment imposed by Cal Am on our monthly water bills.

In 2009, a state Public Utilities Commission judge ruled the assessment, now amounting to 8.325 percent of each bill, to be an inappropriate ratepayer expense. Many reasons support that ruling. Among them: River mitigation is not a ratepayer responsibility, not related directly to the size of our water bills, which can rise independently of the amount of our water usage, and will be unnecessary once an alternative water supply is available.

Ratepayers did not cause the river damage. Cal Am did. Cal Am rates are expected to rise more than 300 percent soon, with no increase in water usage and consequent damage to the river. Most importantly, the best way the district can mitigate river damage is by developing an alternative water supply. Instead of doing that, the district is marching briskly in the opposite direction. It attempted recently, and unsuccessfully, to persuade the judge to change her ruling. Immediately after that failure, district directors voted to hire a consultant to find a way to get around the judge's ruling.

The district put the decision to hire the consultant on the consent agenda of a special meeting with no announcement to the public. The consultant's marching orders are to tell the district how to attach the assessment to property-owner tax bills without requiring a public vote.

The idea is to call the assessment a fee for service, rather than a tax, because a tax would require a two-thirds approval vote by the public. Imposition of a fee could occur unless at least half the assessed property owners objected to it in writing, a most unlikely event.

What the district wants to do is to keep doing business as usual when what it should do, and should already have done, is to develop a drought-proof water supply that does not depend on the Carmel River.

What service is the district performing that might justify the fee? River mitigation? It can best address that by developing a desalination plant. Aquifer storage and recovery? The district did not develop the current ASR facilities. Cal Am did.

Future ASR development would be a questionable expense because ASR is neither drought-proof nor even remotely adequate to meet our water needs. So what to do? Recall? Referendum? Or what? Peninsula residents must decide and act. Soon.

Ron Weitzman is president of WaterPlus, a group that advocates a public takeover of California American Water.

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