Larry Parrish walks through a Carmel Valley neighborhood. He’s going door to door hoping to answer voter questions about Measure O. Parrish is with Public Water Now, the organization that got the measure on next month’s ballot. “We’re doing this to save rate payers money,” said Parrish.
Measure O could ultimately lead to the public takeover of the Monterey Peninsula’s private water supplier, California American Water. Cal Am is a supporter of KAZU. If it passes, Measure O requires the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, a public agency that regulates Cal Am, to study the feasibility of taking over the water system.
Then if the study finds a takeover would benefit rate payers and be possible, Measure O directs the Water Management District to try to buy Cal Am’s local assets. For Parrish public ownership upholds the notion that water is a common right, not a commodity. “An asset like water should be part of the commons, like air,” said Parrish.
Public Water Now’s Managing Director Ron Cohen said the California Public Utilities Commission doesn’t provide effective oversight of companies like Cal Am. As he sees it, it’s a question of accountability. “Commissioners are appointed by Governors for six years. They are not elected. They have to answer to no one. I prefer a local government over a state government,” said Cohen.
Measure O comes as the Monterey Peninsula needs a new water supply. Cal Am is under a state order to drastically reduce the amount of water it takes from the Carmel River by 2017. It hopes to push back that deadline by showing progress on a $400-million desalination plant. Otherwise, the region could face severe rationing. “We take the deadline seriously. We want the water supply project built, and for us whether Measure O passes or fails, we’re moving full speed ahead,” said Kevin Tilden, Cal Am Spokesman.
“I’m not a Cal Am hater. I’m not a Cal Am lover. This is, for me, about Measure O, and its failure to be upfront with people about the costs of Measure O,” said Scott Dick. He’s long been a supporter of the idea of public water, but joined Cal Am’s No on O campaign after researching Measure O and a writing a rebuttal.
It’s unknown how much it would actually cost rate payers to buy out Cal Am, estimates range from $180-million to $500-million. The feasibility study will come up with its own a projection. But since Cal-Am doesn’t want to sell, the only way to buy it is through eminent domain, a costly legal process that could take years.
“When you look at that, and the data doesn’t say we are going to save money by buying Cal Am, why would we inflict an additional $500-million on our rates over the next thirty years, “ said Dick.
In Europe shifting water systems from private to public control is becoming so common there’s a word for it, remunicipalisation. Cornell University Professor Mildred Warner analyzed studies from around the world comparing water prices in public and private systems. “The reason why these communities are bringing their water back is they have decided they can do it cheaper. Whether they can do it cheaper, we’ll see. What we are seeing statically on the evidence is really no difference,” said Warner.
On the Monterey Peninsula, there’s little question that the cost of water is going to go up. The region’s water supply is undergoing a drastic change and rate payers will have to pick up the cost of the desalination plant, and any other new source.
“The question is who is going to debate and decide those choices? Is it going to be a private firm that then sends you a bill? Or is it going to be a public delivery agent that is somewhat more subject to public scrutiny,” said Warner.
While Monterey Peninsula voters weigh in on Measure O on June 3rd, this is a decision voters made nearly a decade ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains town of Felton. Tune in for that story Friday at 6:04am, 7:04am, 8:04am and 4:44pm on 90.3 KAZU.
KAZU’s Doug McKnight contributed to the reporting of this story.