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Get ready to rumble.

Public Water Now is kicking off its effort to take Cal Am Water public with a rally set for 1 p.m. Saturday Oct. 7 at Seaside’s Laguna Grande Park. Expect a news conference with Public Water Now founder George Riley and others along with a bit of entertainment, food trucks, etc.

The group is starting a petition drive to create a November 2018 ballot measure that would force a public takeover of the Peninsula’s water purveyor for reasons that include constantly rising water rates that have made the water here the most expensive in the United States.

Public Water Now attempted a similar measure in 2014 that was defeated by a blitz of deceptive advertising by Cal Am. There’s no reason to expect anything less this time around but organizers believe ratepayers have become fed up with Cal Am’s pricing and its propaganda.

Said Riley, “Skyrocketing water bills have people all over the Peninsula fed up with Cal Am. According to Food & Water Watch, we have the most expensive water in the country. Ratepayers have experienced a 68-percent increase in the cost of water over the last two years and there are more increases scheduled. It really bothers people that we’ve conserved water only to have Cal Am charge us $40 million for the water that we didn’t use to make up for lost profits.”

Riley said goal is to collect as many as 8,000 signatures, considerably more than the 6,200 needed to place the measure on the ballot.

The petition calls for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to adopt a policy of owning the water system and to acquire it if its determined to be “economically feasible.” The water management district would be required within nine months to initiate a plan to acquire and manage all the water facilities in the district boundaries. The result likely would be court hearings to establish the value of the system that Cal Am insists is not for sale.

The unpopularity of the water district, stemming from disagreement over its role, is certain to be used against the Public Water Now campaign, but the group is likely to emphasize that the agency is led by publicly elected board that voters can change.

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I recently caused a commotion in the Monterey Herald’s letters section. On Tuesday, Aug. 29, the Herald printed a letter from Michael Baer of Monterey expressing his disappointment with the Mayors’ Water Authority, specifically their apparent inability to bring Cal Am’s ever-increasing water bills under control. So far so good.

Then in regard to Cal Am’s proposed desalination plant, Baer complained that the Water Authority could “not even be bothered to seriously consider a plan B, just in case this project goes the way of all previous Cal Am new water supply projects: failure.” This is where I saw a problem. Two, actually, but I chose to respond to only one.

The one I ignored was the alleged lack of a “plan B.” The Water Authority designated the project called Deep Water Desal as a backup plan. They directed the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to help develop the project on a parallel track with Cal Am’s project in case the latter fails to materialize. Baer may not have known this because it has not been given much attention in the local press beyond an initial announcement a couple years ago.

But I felt his other claim deserved some attention, as it has become popular in recent years to blame Cal Am for every previous project failure regardless of the cause or who was actually in charge. So I wrote the following letter, which was published in the Herald on Aug. 31s.

Cal Am not to blame for past failures

Michael Baer’s Aug. 29 letter made reference to the “failure” of “all previous Cal Am new water supply projects.” Let’s get the history straight. Cal Am has been the lead agency on only one water project, the current desalination plan. Earlier projects that failed were overseen by public agencies, not Cal Am.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District was in charge of two viable projects, a desalination plant in Sand City and a new Los Padres dam on the Carmel River. Taxpayer advocates and environmental groups convinced voters that these projects were too expensive, environmentally damaging, and growth inducing so they were killed at the ballot box.

More recently Marina Coast Water District was the lead agency for the Regional Desalination Project. It involved three public agencies (none of which represented Peninsula ratepayers), each designated to operate separate components of a single desalination plant which would sell water to Cal Am. A conflict of interest problem brought the whole thing crashing down.

Cal Am took the reins only after it became clear that the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project. And while this may not be saying much, Cal Am has made more progress than any public agency ever did.

James B. Toy, Seaside

The very next day the Herald published a letter from Jan Shriner, a board member of the Marina Coast Water District. She didn’t mention my letter specifically, but it was clear she didn’t care for my choice of words as her first two sentences made clear:

Cal Am is not a ‘lead agency’ of any project they propose. Cal Am can’t be the lead agency because they are the project proponent and a corporation.”

Evidently Shriner believes the term “agency” only applies to governmental organizations. Perhaps that is the case in her world of bureaucratic legalese, but my dictionary defines the word more broadly as “an organization, company, or bureau that provides a particular service,” so I believe I used the word correctly when I applied it to Cal Am. If I had said Cal Am was “in charge of” instead of the “lead agency on” only one project I might have avoided this little kerfuffle. Live and learn.

The remainder of her first paragraph said: “Cal Am was a partner in the Regional Desalination Project (RDP) along with Marina Coast Water District and the Monterey County Water Resource Agency (MCWRA). Cal Am pulled out of the project (and sued MCWD) reportedly because a MCWRA director was accused of conflict of interest. The former MCWRA director pled no contest to the charges.”

This seems to confirm my original assessment, but her choice of words spins the story more in Marina Coast’s favor. I suspect this was the motivation behind her letter as Marina Coast has been on the losing side of litigation with Cal Am in cases relating to both the failed RDP and Cal Am’s current project.

But she did make one valid point. In my last paragraph I said “the public process was unable to deliver a water supply project.” Shriner corrected me by pointing to the completion of a small desalination plant in Sand City and a project called Aquifer Storage and Recovery, which she said are both under the authority of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. A pending recycled water project called Pure Water Monterey is a joint effort involving three public agencies. Those projects had crossed my mind when I wrote my original letter, but even when combined they don’t come close to fulfilling the need. However, they do help so for accuracy I should have said “the public agencies were unable to deliver a complete water supply solution.”

Moving along, on Sept. 2 and 3 two more letters appeared. The first was from Chuck Cech of Monterey, followed by Bill Hood, a part-time resident of Carmel. Both began with a brief reference to my letter indicating they didn’t like it. Then they changed the subject by asking me a series of long-winded questions about Cal Am’s handling of ratepayer money, which, of course, had nothing to do with the subject of my original letter except for inclusion of the water company’s name.

Along with their similar formatting, both letters seemed to imply that my unwillingness to blame Cal Am for the failure of three projects not under the company’s direct control somehow meant that I approve of everything Cal Am has ever done. The absurdity of that should be self-evident. And anyone who has read my previous writings about local water issues knows that at various times I have been both supportive and critical of Cal Am depending on the situation. I don’t know Chuck Cech, and he may never have heard of me, so he can be excused for not knowing that. Bill Hood, on the other hand, has no excuses. He and I have had several online discussions on this topic, including private e-mails and public comments on the pages of the Monterey Bay Partisan. He knows where I stand and it’s not where his very public letter placed me.

Since their two attack letters deviated so far from the subject of mine, I feel no obligation to answer their questions. But what the heck. I have nothing better to do right now, so I’ll give them a go.

Cech began with a note of gratitude: “Mr. Toy thank you for telling us Cal Am was not the lead agency on the three failed projects. However, Cal Am was a partner in each of these projects. They spent millions of dollars on each of these projects.”

It goes without saying that Cal Am was a partner since they would deliver any water produced by these projects. I assumed that was self-evident so I saw no need to deplete my 200-word allocation to explain that in my letter.

Then he launched his inquisition with this: “Every one of these projects failed. Does Cal Am have difficulty working with others, when it comes to controlling water delivery and cost on the Monterey Peninsula?”

Well, let’s see. I don’t recall any reports of strife between Cal Am and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, and the company seems to have a pretty cozy relationship with the Peninsula Mayors’ Water Authority (some say they’re too cozy). So, no, they don’t seem to have difficulty working with those agencies. As for Cal Am and Marina Coast, it’s no secret that their relationship has been strained since the collapse of the RDP program. Is Cal Am to blame? Maybe, but Marina Coast doesn’t have a particularly good reputation for cooperation. Two years ago then-Congressman Sam Farr suggested that Marina Coast should be disbanded because “they just haven’t conducted themselves in a very professional way. They’ve been fighting everybody else, and they’ve been sort of selfish and arrogant.” So there’s that to consider.

Cech continued….and continued:

Did Cal Am conduct the necessary due diligence investigation of all aspects of these projects before agreeing to join them? Since Cal Am was not the lead agency on any of these failed projects, why did they spend a total of $34 million on them, without turning one shovel of dirt? Why is Cal Am not responsible for their cost of these projects? Why are ratepayers now paying $34 million to Cal Am plus interest for these failed projects?”

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Why don’t you ask Cal Am? While you’re at it, ask their lapdogs at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Hood had a similar line of questioning, but he opened by impugning my recollection of past events: “Mr. Toy relies upon his version of history to claim that Cal Am is not at fault with respect to the present condition of water supply efforts.”

Stop right there, Bill. It looks like you’re accusing me of making up alternative facts, Conway style. I take that very seriously because my reputation is at stake. If you are going to announce to the entire Peninsula that I have fabricated my own “version of history” contrary to actual history you need to explain your reasoning. If I have said anything that is untrue then by all means correct me (as Jan Shriner did). I’ll take my lumps, learn from it, and strive to do better next time. But please don’t suggest in public that I’m spreading misinformation then blow past the accusation by saying nothing more than…

I do not agree with him, but even if I did, I would ask Mr. Toy these questions:”

And just like Cech , you abruptly change the subject. I call this diversionary tactic “debate and switch.”

Now to answer your question: “Yes, a fact-based opinion as to whether or not Cal Am is the villain in the Peninsula water scenario is necessary (and, frankly, is already on the record). But, why are you avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’ by ignoring the more immediate and concerning issue that has resulted from the historical and ongoing Cal Am/CPUC/local political support process that has created the highest cost of water in the country?

I’m not avoiding the subject. In my blog and in the comments section of the Monterey Bay Partisan I have used the word “unethical” to describe Cal Am’s recent retroactive rate increase. But I didn’t mention it in my letter because…

a.) Water rates were not the subject of my letter.

b.) The Herald’s 200-word limit prevented me from going off on a tangent about water rates.

c.) The subject of Cal Am’s high rates is discussed almost daily in the Herald’s letters section and frequently in the Monterey Bay Partisan. At this point there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said a dozen times already

Next question:  “Even if you were right and I was wrong, doesn’t all of this tell you that something is amiss and has to be corrected?”

Yes.

Do you really believe that the nation’s highest water costs are the result from other factors at play not related to Cal Am, et al?”

The question is a little confusing. Do Peninsula voters, the Water Management District, and the state water board’s cease and desist order qualify as “other factors” or do they get lumped in with “et al”? If they are other factors then my answer is yes. If they fall under et al then, no.

Either way, are you satisfied with the current situation, and, if so, why?”

I’m not at all satisfied. In an earlier commentary here I likened our situation to a “freakin’ nuthouse.” As the years have passed there’s been more and more bickering and less and less cooperation among everyone involved.

Making matters worse, Cal Am squandered a lot of goodwill by imposing their retroactive rate increase on top of rate increases to build their desal plant. And whoever was the genius that guaranteed Cal Am a certain amount of profit from every capital investment, including unproductive ones, should be run out of town in a westerly direction. But when it comes to building a water supply project Cal Am strikes me as the only adult in the room. The company is under a lot of pressure to succeed, and they’re doing their darnedest, yet a lot of people seem determined to block their every move. I tell you again, local water politics is a freakin’ nuthouse!

The really frustrating part is that it was ridiculously easy to avoid the current situation, but we collectively chose not to. Had voters approved the local water district’s plans for a dam and desal plant combo in the 1990s, the mess we’re in now would never have happened. The state would likely never have imposed a cease and desist order on Cal Am pumping. Cal Am would never have gotten into a costly failed deal with Marina Coast, nor would the company be sinking buckets of capital into their own desal plant to be paid for with our water bills.

But Peninsula voters were led astray by various activist groups claiming that better, faster, and cheaper projects could be had if we just listened to them and ignored the advice of the bureaucrats. But their promises were empty. They never had a plan. In the last quarter century the names of the activists have changed, but their message is the same. They’re still promising better, faster, cheaper water if we just listen to them. Unlike the majority of voters I didn’t believe them then, and I certainly don’t believe them now.

So here’s where I stand. I don’t care if the water company is public or private. I don’t care if our new water supply involves a dam, a desal plant, water hyacinths, or icebergs towed in from Alaska. I don’t care if a desal plant is fed by slant wells, open ocean intakes, or a bucket brigade. I don’t care whose toes get stepped on, whose feelings get hurt, or whose ideology gets squashed. At this point I don’t even care how much it is going to cost. I just want it done!

James Toy lives in Seaside and is a regular contributor to the Partisan. This first appeared on one of his blogsMr. Toy’s Mental Notes.

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Richard Hajas of Ojai gives some tips to Peninsula folks about how to take over a water utility

Corrected Ojai takeover figure below

 

Public Water Now Holds Forum on the Feasibility of a Cal Am Buyout

PWN’s guest speaker, Richard Hajas, spoke from experience Monday night. Former general manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District in Ventura County, he was the key author of the feasibility study for the community of Ojai in its recent successful buyout of the private Golden State water system.

Hajas worked as a volunteer with Ojai Flow, the citizens group seeking to municipalize Ojai’s water system. He did the feasibility study pro bono. “Our Feasibility Study was our bible—it had all the facts we needed to argue for local public control,” he told the audience.

To determine if such a takeover is affordable to ratepayers, Hajas explained that the rate base is critical to the cost estimate. A reasonable estimate must also include the fair market value of the system, the costs of a 30-year bond to cover the purchase, the legal costs, and the costs of getting the public agency prepared to take over the operation.

Why did Ojai want public ownership of their water? Hajas said, “The cost of water from the private provider was the big problem. Our costs were more than twice as much as our neighbors and Golden State Water was taking $6 million a year out of our small community.”

The Monterey Peninsula has the most expensive water in the country. The audience could definitely relate to Ojai’s motivation! Although Ojai has a much smaller water system than the Monterey Peninsula, the community successfully fought the corporate Goliath’s legal onslaught and publicity campaign and won public ownership.

Hajas cautioned that the current private water owner will do everything possible to discourage the public from such an undertaking. “Water is a very profitable business,” he said, “and the private owner will definitely not go away quietly.”

It took seven years and cost a total of $60 million for Ojai to buy out Golden State Water. When it came to a public vote Hajas felt confident in the outcome. (Article originally said, incorrectly, that the total was $44 million.)

“I’m a numbers guy. Voters approved the process to purchase the Golden State water delivery system with an 87% majority.”

Under public ownership long-term savings for small usage customers is project to amount to hundreds of dollars per year and much more for larger customers. For the Ojai community of 5,000 to 6,000 people, the total savings over the first 10 years could reach $25.8 million.

Asked if it was worth it, Hajas said, “Yes, because it will cut the annual cost increase to ratepayers in half, from 8% per year to 4%, over a 20-year period, saving many millions of dollars. And I stress the importance of looking at such a project over the long term. It’s long-term savings. My kids and grandkids will see the greater benefit”.

George Riley, director of Pubic Water Now, ended the meeting saying, “PWN wants to make the public aware of the problems and costs related to private water systems. Their motivation is profit, they’re answerable to their shareholders, not us. It easy to see why 87% of the water systems in the U.S. are publicly owned and operated for the good of the communities they serve. I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but more water rate increases are coming from Cal-Am. We need to take action!”

Public Water Now will begin collecting signatures in October to qualify municipalization of our water system for a vote on the November 2018 ballot.

Melodie Chrislock, the communications director for Public Water Now, can be reached at MWChrislock@redshift.com

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Warren Church, who served on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors from 1965 to 1977, a tumultuous time in the county’s history, died Saturday, Sept. 2, at the age of 87, his family announced.

Mr. Church chose to use the California End of Life Option due to terminal illness. The California End of Life Option Act is a statute that allows certain terminally ill adults to request and obtain a prescription for medication to end their lives in a peaceful manner. The law was adopted in June 2016.

His final wish was to spread the word that this choice is available to California residents who are at the end of life and meet the criteria.

A celebration of his life is being planned and a date will be announced soon.

Mr. Church, known as the father of the Monterey County parks system, never missed a board meeting in his 12 years as a Monterey County District 1 supervisor.

He helped turn the tide against Humble Oil’s bid to establish a major refinery in the Moss Landing area in the mid-1960s, by requiring strict environmental regulations regarding such facilities. The project would have kick-started a 3,800-acre industrial complex in Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough that included a nuclear power plant. The board of supervisors voted 3-2 to approve Humble Oil’s facility, but because of the regulations that the board passed to regulate air quality and other factors, Humble Oil decided to build its facility in Benicia instead.

The development of the proposed industrial complex would have irreversibly changed the look and feel of Monterey County. Much of the Monterey Bay’s marine environment, now protected by state and federal law, would have been decimated, and tourism and agriculture would have been greatly diminished.

Mr. Church’s tenure on the board coincided with a period of great change for Monterey County which was instrumental in creating the county that exists today. There was intense pressure to change the character of rural North Monterey County to a densely developed area, which Mr. Church challenged successfully by establishing rural residential zoning in 1972, and growth guidelines for the entire county in 1976 to protect rural areas and the county’s less-urban character.

Mr. Church also sought to preserve the area’s natural beauty by promoting a county parks system, which began with Royal Oaks Park in 1966, which he named, and later was the inspiration for naming the North County community of Royal Oaks.

EARLY YEARS

Born on Oct. 19, 1929 in the Elkhorn area of North Monterey County, just days before the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression, Mr. Church lived in the county all his life. After graduating from King City High School in 1947, he attended Hartnell College in Salinas and then Cal Poly State College in San Luis Obispo. He was drafted in 1951 and sent to Korea with the U.S. Army 987th Artillery Division. There, he was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart.

Mr. Church returned and continued his studies at Cal Poly, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 1962. He went on to get a master’s degree and a teaching credential, and taught in Monterey County schools. In 1974, he received the Honored Alumni Award from the university’s alumni association.

In 1959, Mr. Church established Church Christmas Tree Farm on Hidden Valley Road, which is one of the state’s oldest Christmas tree farms in continuous operation.

Mr. Church also helped found American Legion Post 593 in Prunedale; and wrote several books, including “The Overburdened Ark” on population control, and others on the history of North Monterey County.

A LIFE IN POLITICS

In 1964, Mr. Church ran for District 1 Supervisor as one of six candidates. He made the runoff, and then was elected, handily beating incumbent Chester Deaver, who had served three terms on the board. At the time, the position was a part-time one, and came with a typewriter and $300 a month for incidental expenses. Mr. Church was the last supervisor to keep his office at his home and use his personal phone for county business, and never sought reimbursement for either from the county.

Mr. Church was a firm supporter of the Monterey County Free Library System, working to provide four of the five libraries in his district with new and expanded facilities and services during his tenure. He helped create the Monterey County Parks Department, which took over recreational management of Nacimiento and San Antonio reservoirs.

Other accomplishments included creating the Abandoned Vehicle Abatement Program, initiating the county’s first family planning program, expanding the sheriff’s patrol and litter control, and initiation and support of health and social services programs that included drug and alcohol rehabilitation, formation of the Women’s Commission in 1974 and upgrading of Natividad Medical Center.

He also worked on numerous local and regional boards throughout his life. Gov. Edmund G. Brown appointed him to the California Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Redwood Road and Trail Committee, and the State Local Applications Advisory Board. Mr. Church served on the National Association of Counties, the state and Monterey County Democratic Central Committees, San Felipe Water Importation Committee, and the Tri-County Coastline Committee.

In addition, he served on a variety of governmental bodies for Monterey County, including the Welfare Commission, the planning committee for the Water Resources Agency, Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Sanctuary Committee, Pajaro River Watershed Flood Protection Authority Board, and many others.

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Regarding the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Aug. 25 editorial, “Last-minute water tax can’t be justified however worthy the cause”: Unsafe drinking water is a Third World problem that cannot be tolerated in California. It is long past time that the Legislature produced a sustainable solution that will ensure a basic right to water that is clean and safe.

Such a solution is at hand. It is a bipartisan plan supported by environmental groups such as Clean Water Action, health groups such as the American Heart Association, and farm groups including the California Rice Commission and the Western Growers Association.

Senate Bill 623 creates a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund designed to provide emergency relief and a sustainable long-term solution by funding water treatment facilities that these small water systems cannot possible afford on their own. Funding would come from two sources.

Because in many cases the source of contamination is a high concentration of nitrates, an unavoidable byproduct of farming operations, the agricultural community is stepping up to support a fee to cover nitrate-related costs. It is a statewide problem, so the funding structure also includes a statewide solution — a modest fee not to exceed $1 a month on the water bills for residents and businesses.

A recent poll showed that two-thirds of Californians — alarmed by the plight of those without access to a safe water supply — support this approach.

The fact that a million Californians cannot use water from their taps to mix baby formula, make iced tea, brush their teeth or simply to straight-up quench their thirsts ought to be unacceptable.

It is a problem we are morally compelled to solve, and a sensible solution is at hand.

Sen. Bill Monning is a Democratic state senator representing Carmel. Contributing to this piece was Tim Johnson. president and CEO of the California Rice Commission.

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UPDATE: IN COMMENT SECTION BELOW, STEELHEAD ASSOCIATION’S FRANK EMERSON RESPONDS AND SAYS, WELL, YES, WE HAVE RECEIVED A LITTLE BIT OF MONEY FROM CAL AM.

The Monterey Herald’s most recent editorial on the important subject of water might have been compelling if its premise had been correct. Ironically, the errant editorial began with a lecture strongly and wrongly insinuating that backers of a public takeover of Cam Am Water play fast and loose with the facts.

The focus of the piece Thursday’s was that “some public water advocates have expressed the view” that the Carmel River Steelhead Association supports Cal Am’s deeply troubled desalination project because the organization has received money for its noble work protecting the fish in the endangered river.

(I would include a link to the editorial but as far as I can tell it is not been posted to the web.)

The Herald doesn’t get specific about the source of the supposed payments to the association, but the editorial seems to be saying that those unnamed “public water advocates” have alleged that the association gets money from Cal Am. The Herald doesn’t identify or quote any of the public water advocates who purportedly have accused the association of having been bought off. I could be wrong, but I believe there were no names or quotations in the article because nobody has made such an accusation, at least not in any type of public forum.

Several years ago, I asked one of the association’s most active leaders, Frank Emerson, if the group was getting any money from Cal Am. I raised the question largely because Emerson has defended Cal Am so strongly and has been so vigorous in his criticism of Cal Am’s critics. He said Cal Am hadn’t provided a penny. I believed him then and I believe him now. I disagree with Emerson’s view of Cal Am. He seems to forget that its record of overpumping the Carmel River and its neglect of the San Clemente Dam were key reasons that the steelhead are in danger in the first place. I disagree with his opinion but I don’t question his honesty.

The issue of a public takeover will be on the ballot late next year. The last time the issue was on a public ballot, Cal Am fended off the effort through an exceptionally well funded and deceptive advertising blitz. If the Herald wants to play any useful role in the next election, here’s hoping it plays it straighter than it did this week.

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