Thursday, September 16, 2010
As if California American Water doesn’t have enough to worry about – with one state order to stop overpumping the Carmel River, another to deal with the obsolete San Clemente Dam, pressure to fix aging infrastructure and a staggeringly expensive desalination project on tap – now it’s facing revived calls for a public takeover.
On Sept. 13, about a dozen prominent locals met in Monterey and decided to launch an effort to form a new public agency to buy out Cal Am.
About half the group’s members were formerly involved with Monterey Friends of Locally Owned Water, an organization formed more than five years ago to back a public buyout of the private water company.
A separate group, Citizens for Public Water, echoed the call for a municipal water utility. But the two groups diverged when it came to 2005’s Measure W, which asked voters to approve a $550,000 buyout study. CPW plugged the measure but FLOW balked, calling for more decisive action. Cal Am outspent the proponents 10-to-1, and the measure went down 2-to-1.
Monterey FLOW has been inactive for almost three years. But the spring announcement of the regional desalination project agreements inspired some of its core members to reconvene.
Under the agreements, now being considered by the state Public Utilities Commission, Cal Am ratepayers will foot the project’s $230 million to $400 million bill. But they’ll have little representation in its governance – a partnership of Cal Am, Marina Coast Water District and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
“There are so many problems with the current plan,” says Monterey FLOW member Ron Weitzman.
Next week, Weitzman’s group plans to pick a fresh name and confirm its membership, with Weitzman as president and Carmel ophthamologist Harvey Billig as VP.
Group member Nader Agha, a local developer who was involved in Monterey FLOW, says he’s lost faith in the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which was formed in 1978 to solve the area’s long-term water supply problem.
“It’s controlled by special-interest politicians,” Agha says of the district. “That’s why we keep seeing them spinning their wheels and coming up with no solution. The massive majority of people want to own their own water.”
But Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Bowie says Measure W proved a lack of public interest in a buyout. “We have 40,000 customers here who are going to be shouldering the burden for a new water supply,” she says. “Taking on all of the necessary projects, and in addition trying to buy out the water system, was a decision the majority of the people did not support years ago.”
Water District General Manager Darby Fuerst notes that even though his agency hasn’t fulfilled its mission, it’s helped Cal Am with partial solutions. “I believe the district still has a place in terms of developing water supply, managing demand and protecting the environment,” he says.
The water district has considered a Cal Am buyout, he adds, but since the failure of Measure W it hasn’t been able to justify the cost of the appraisal.
Citizens for Public Water, which is a signatory to the regional desalination project agreements, isn’t involved in Weitzman’s new group yet. But CPW organizer George Riley is open to the possibility. “I don’t think there is any doubt we’d want to join up, [but] my interest is in getting more public control of the desal,” he says.
The metamorphosis of Monterey FLOW into a renewed water buyout movement, he adds, would have to be borne out by a lot of number-crunching: “They’ve done a lot of old thinking on this, but it’s a new world.”