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Thirsty bird.With Gov. Brown ordering across-the-board reductions in water usage, the Partisan has a few suggestions, some entirely serious.

First, no one should even think about making signs proclaiming their dedication to conservation or sending out mailers touting their efforts. It takes water to make signs and water to make envelopes and glossy paper. Let’s all just assume that you and your business are doing your part. Thank you.

Farmers should be barred from putting new fields into production. They say they can’t water what they’ve got anyway.

It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond, yet California growers are planting almonds as fast as they can. That will change once the almond boycott gears up.

Many of the houses in Pebble Beach, Carmel and Pacific Grove are weekenders owned by people in Texas or wherever. Even if it takes a new kind of border patrol, make it clear to them they’re not welcome for the duration.

Members of athletic teams should be limited to one-minute showers after practice or games. Football players who have to be forced to take showers at home are known for trying to use every drop of hot water in the locker rooms.

Cal Am should be fined for every ounce of water that escapes from its pipes, and the fines should be steeply tiered like they are for homeowners. Can’t account for 10,000 gallons, Cal Am? That will be $26 million.

Make everyone’s water bill a public record.

People who use too much water get socked with big bills. How about free water for those who use very little, or prizes for those who cut back the most?

Tell the Monterey Downs developers that if they come up with a plan to use the horses to haul water tanks in from back east, we’ll consider letting them put in the trails and maybe the tennis center but that’s all.

Rose bushes and rhodendrons, gone. Pretty, yes, but they’re water hogs.

Hose down your sidewalk, go to jail.

Some of the water that is flushed into septic tanks eventually seeps into the groundwater but much is lost. To foster recycling and protect streams and beaches, sewers need to be installed in the many parts of California still on septic systems.

If you’re going to take a bath, and you probably should, don’t let the cold water run down the drain while you wait for the hot. Put the plug in. The bath will get hot enough anyway.

If there are still places in California without water meters, shut off their water entirely.

Avoid the need to wash dishes. Do what most guys do when they’re alone and just eat over the sink.

If you’re planning to paint your house, use oil-based paint so you don’t need water to clean up.

Finally, as a reward to those of you foolish enough to have read this far, a water-related joke:

Two guys were hired to paint a church, but the job didn’t pay well and they realized early on that they couldn’t afford enough paint. So they bought what they could and thinned it with water. As they proceeded, they found that they had to keep adding water and by the time they reached the steeple, the paint was no longer completely covering the old coat. Suddenly dark clouds gathered, rain poured down, washing much of the paint away, and a voice boomed from heaven, “Repaint, you thinners! Repaint and thin no more!”

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Water rates: What about ethics and humanity?

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"... usually mission statements have more detail."Recently, a friend of mine commented that Cal-Am, a company expected to be in violation of a state order which would result in the accrual of significant fines, has created an account with the CPUC, in the expectation that, once the fines are levied, the company can seek reimbursement of those fines from its ratepayers. His final observation – “it’s not evil, it’s the nature of the beast.” It may not be evil, but is it ethical? Private energy companies make billions by charging their customers with gasoline prices whose amount and fluctuations make no sense; airlines gouge their customers with ridiculous fees, and routinely charge over $400 just to fly from Boston to DC. And, all too frequently, the high cost of food, keeps many malnourished and hungry–in the richest country on earth.What’s the difference between those examples and a private water company raising rates, seeking and obtaining reimbursement for all sorts of costs, including those arising from their own negligence, from their ratepayers, many of whom are struggling financially?The difference is that water is a commodity like no other. The poorest person on earth has a personal need for water that is exactly the same as the richest person on earth. The need for water crosses all ethnic, economic, racial, geographical and political boundaries. So it is not too difficult to ask why the delivery of water by a private utility, which unlike other utilities is a completely unique action critical and necessary to life itself, is not provided and regulated on a more humanitarian and ethical basis., not strictly on a profit basis.If a person can’t afford gasoline, there are alternatives to driving a car, even if some are harsh; if someone can’t afford to fly to a certain place, there are alternatives; and for many, the inability to buy food for themselves and their families can be mitigated by the government (e.g., food stamps) or charitable organizations (e.g., Salvation Army and others). If a person can’t afford gas or electricity, it can be difficult but not necessarily life-threatening. However, if a person can’t afford water, there are little, if any, alternatives, and a complete absence of an alternative can take a life.

The dilemma in California and elsewhere is compounded when water is delivered by profit-making corporations. Unlike most commodities, the cost of water delivered by that method is not determined by supply and demand, but by factors approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), involving individuals who, in all likelihood, have never spent a single day in their lives worrying if they and their families will have enough water to drink, cleanse themselves and keep healthy.

In an ideal world, this dilemma should never exist. It goes without saying that ours is not an ideal world. But in California, and particularly on the Peninsula, “ideal” is not a word that any wise person could ever use to characterize the long-term, unsolved water supply situation.

In California, water is scarce. On the Peninsula, water is both scarce and expensive–more expensive than almost anywhere else in the state. And yet, the local private water purveyor seeks regular increases from the CPUC for any and all costs incurred, allows unexplained water bill spikes to occur without explanation, and, as my friend observes, even makes all necessary preparations to obtain future approvals for seeking reimbursement from ratepayers for costs and fines it will be assessed because it has been either negligent or incapable, or both. Based on known facts, some have suggested that either Cal-Am has never had a serious intention to actually build a desal plant, or is just positioning itself near Ft Ord, the only location on the Peninsula where serious future growth might take place. That may not be an accurate conclusion, but at its very best, Cal-Am has demonstrated its inability to manage and direct a long-range, expensive project and guide it through the complicated process in this state, without delays at every turn. With that track record, what are the odds that Cal-Am will be a good shepherd for its cash-giving flock in the future?

There are two reasons why Cal-Am can do what they do with respect to rates. One reason is that the California Public Resources Code allows them to. The Code created the CPUC, which has proven to be way too utility-friendly. In my opinion, major changes need to be made to the CPUC, and I will identify them. But the other reason is more troubling.

I worked for many years in the corporate world and I fully understand that the goals and strategy of a corporation are to make money for its shareholders. However, when that strategy involves actions bordering on fraud; a deliberate failure to maintain its assets so as to prevent degrading of those assets to a point where they must be replaced or eliminated; a proclivity to making deals in secret; and a callous disregard of the burdens its continued actions place on those with meager means — when that strategy includes those factors, I believe it demonstrates a complete lack of business ethics, and even of the lack of a spark of humanity and concern for the unempowered members of the community it serves.

It is sad that the only way to eliminate those regretful actions is to get rid of the source. It is further sad that our elected officials are willing to overlook the absence of ethics by their questionable and continuing unconditional support of Cal-Am. And it is even further sad that the resources available to Cal-Am probably mean that private citizens, however well prepared, may not be successful in future efforts to acquire the company. In other words, I am not sanguine that the source can be gotten rid of.

So that leaves changing the PUC. There are several aspects of the PUC that should change immediately. One–difficulty of access to the Commission. The Coastal Commission is also a statewide agency, and while not a poster child for incredibly good government, at least the Commission meets all over the state, along the coast. As far as I know, the PUC rarely meets in any location other than San Francisco, which is not an easy trip, even from Monterey. Two–ratepayers really have no representation with any teeth in a rate case before the Commission. The PUC does have a Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA), which does represent ratepayers, but, as an integral part of the PUC staff, they have no authority other than to make recommendations, which unfortunately are often ignored. And Three–the Public Resources Code does not specify that each commissioner on the PUC must have a specific background relevant to the business of the commission. For example – one commissioner might be required to have telecommunications experience (the Commission does have one with that background), energy experience, environmental experience, engineering experience, etc. The PUCs of other states do require that, and further demand a balance of Democratic and Republican commissioners relative to the appointment process.

What we have in California is completely at the whim of the sitting Governor. You could ask if, where and when the ratepayer community of California has the opportunity to weigh in on proposed appointments, but it would be a waste of time–there is little or no opportunity.

All in all, none of this is good news or bodes well for the hope for a  reasonable and affordable water supply, as well as the future fiscal interests of the Peninsula ratepayers.

Hood is a retired water resources lawyer and engineer and former executive director of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments

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It was encouraging to hear that Cal Am is surveying area residents. Could it be that our water purveyor has decided to start listening to its customers? A lot of people on the Peninsula have a lot to say about the company, its price structure, its customer service, its approach to protecting its monopoly.

So I’ll admit to some disappointment when I learned that the telephone survey is only partly designed to find out what’s on the community’s mind. Unfortunately, it’s more like one of those “push polls,” in which the surveyor is engaged in spin more than in research.

shutterstock_117041995You may have been on the receiving end of such a poll during a political campaign: “Would you vote for So and So for county supervisor if you knew that he routinely drives drunk and does not recycle?” Or “Would you vote for Measure X if you knew it would end all property rights forever?”

The Cal Am survey is subtler than that but the intent reveals itself as the questions go on. It starts, interestingly enough, by asking for the respondent’s opinion of the Peninsula water management district, Cal Am, PG&E, city government and Monterey County government. The nice caller from Quantel, a research outfit out of Ogden, Utah, asks the respondent to rank each of them, from very favorable to very unfavorable. It then asks for impressions of various utility services, including cable TV, electricity, gas, cell phones, sewage and, of course, water.

Speaking of PG&E, here is an excellent editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle this week urging the removal of Public Utilities Commission Chairman Michael Peevey because of his extreme coziness with a company he supposedly regulates.

The poll continues. How do you like the way your water bill is calculated? (My own answer is that I would like it better if it resulted in smaller numbers.)

How do you feel about the reliability of your water service? Would you be willing to pay more for water if it would ensure an adequate supply during drought or other emergency? Excellent question, that one.

This may be one of the most important questions: Are you tired of the debate over who should own the water system? If so, how tired? And don’t you wish those darned elected and community leaders would work with Cal Am on a solution? (They didn’t really use “darned.”) The ownership question is particularly important because the group pushing for public ownership of the water system appears undaunted following its November defeat and is pursuing various strategies.

I emailed some questions of my own to Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Stedman on Thursday. I wanted to know the purpose of the survey and who’s paying for it, Cal Am shareholders or ratepayers. I also asked about the cost. As of Friday morning, I haven’t heard anything back yet. I’ll update this if and when I do.

If you’d rather not wait, maybe you could ask Stedman yourself. Catherine.Stedman@amwater.com.

EVENING UPDATE: In response to an inquiry from a Partisan reader, Stedman had this to say: “The survey is an opinion research poll and it is being conducted by a very reputable firm, not at ratepayer expense.” Perhaps other Partisan readers can get her to disclose the purpose. 

I particularly enjoyed where the poll went next. Quantel wants to know to what extent folks agree that Cal Am has integrity. It might have been more interesting if the question had been worded like this: “If you knew that Cal Am spent a fortune to defeat a ballot measure regarding public ownership and used a variety of deceptive techniques in the process, would you think the company has integrity?”

If there was any question about whether this is about spin or research, the following points cleared it up. The poll asked respondents how they feel about Cal Am’s:

Involvement in the community

Management abilities

Rercord of keeping the community informed

Practice of sharing the community’s values

Concern for its shareholders and workers

Rate structure, which requires big water users to pay more than small water users

Its performance in finding a new water supply

The survey taker also wanted to know how people feel about Cal Am’s practice of providing rain barrels to area schools, providing training grants to firefighting groups, and providing water-bottle filling stations at the airport.

I’m guessing a fair number of people like those things. But then the survey goes deep with tougher questions. Such as how do you feel about Cal Am’s 75 employees living right here, and how do you feel about Cal Am’s success in fixing leaks to the point that it ranks better than average? How does it make you feel to know that you pay just a penny for a gallon of tap water compared to what you pay for bottled water? How do you feel about Cal Am’s highly reliable service?

Buried among the fluffy questions are a couple of good ones. How do you feel about the proposed desalination plant? Do you think it will ever get built? How much of an impact do you believe it will have? Good questions that might have been even better about a decade ago.

Have you heard about sharp rate increases? If so, how concerned are you?

Near the end, the survey includes a message from Cal Am President Rob McLean saying the company had been caught off guard by the move to the four-tier pricing structure and was not set up to handle it. He may be talking about those huge bill spikes for customers whose homes did or did not develop leaks. He correctly notes that the result may have shaken consumer confidence in the company, and he apologizes for the inconvenience.

Among the concluding questions is this. Now, having heard all this, what do you think of Cal Am?

Feel free to use the comment section below to answer that question for yourself. You’ll find that the comment box is blacked out. You can leave a comment in the blacked out box though it is very hard to read what you are typing. I do not know why it is like that, but I’m working on it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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I Pledge Allegiance to Desalination

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47985_10151612107346163_841450537_n 2When a water district or local government in California looks at water supply projects and determines that desalination is the way to go, the first question local taxpayers might want to ask is whether the agency is a member of CalDesal.

If it is, there’s a good chance the decision was made before the studies, before anyone looked at any other methodologies.

You probably haven’t heard of CalDesal. I’m a fairly serious student of California water issues and I hadn’t until Gary Patton mentioned it in his Land Use Report this week.

I’ll tell you more about the organization in a sec. First, though, I’d like to share its Desalination Pledge. Presumably the pledge has been taken by the entire membership, including 31 water private and public water purveyors, including our very own California American Water Co. and the city of Santa Cruz.

 “I believe that in order to continue to have sufficient safe and reliable water supplies to provide for public benefit throughout the state, California must consider and develop all viable water supply sources. Therefore desalination and salinity management technology should continue to be developed with the encouragement of the state, its agencies and its municipalities.”

I’m glad to see the pledge didn’t end with the words “at all costs.”

Desalination is and probably should be considered a proper component of the measures being taken to ease the water shortage in many parts of California. For better or worse, it is part of the path the Monterey Peninsula is on as we try to ward off a state-ordered cutback in water use. But, for me at least, the existence of CalDesal and its oath have a backfire effect.

  • Why does this expensive technology, which comes with some heavy environmental baggage, need a lobby?
  • Why don’t directors of the various member agencies, such as the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, recognize that it looks funny for them to be paying into a group that also includes some 40 engineering firms, construction companies and others that would benefit handsomely from a boom in desalination projects?
  • Why do they need an oath?
  • Should someone write oaths to groundwater storage and recovery, conservation and wastewater treatment.

It’s no surprise that Cal Am is a CalDesal member. Several of the consulting and engineering firms it has worked with on the Monterey County desalination project are members. So is the Nossaman law firm in Sacramento, a key player in the continuing controversies over desalination’s past and future in Monterey County. As a private company, Cal Am isn’t constrained by the conflict-of-interest rules that govern public agencies, even if it is incorrectly listed in CalDesal paperwork as a public agency. Even so, here’s hoping the dues come out of profits instead of my water bill.

A quick effort to find out more about CalDesal turned up little. Its board chairman comes from a Southern California water district and its executive director, Ron Davis, formerly held the same position with the Association of California Water Agencies. That’s the group that worked closely with Cal Am to successfully fight the recent Measure O, which could have led to a public takeover of Cal Am.

I looked into the CalDesal address, looking for more clues. I expected to see that the group shared office space with the Association of California Water Agencies or the Nossaman firm. Instead, Suites 950 at 770 L St. in Sacramento is a glorified mail drop or, as they call them these days, a “virtual office.” As the sales literature says, “Impress your clients with a virtual address.”

I am impressed, though probably not the way they were hoping.

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