SoCal Water Fights: Why the Price of White Gold Is Rising & What Can Be Done About It

Image via Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates on Facebook

Call it Oregon Envy. I first heard of this syndrome from contractors and landscapers who laughingly described its central symptoms: emerald lawns in a brown terrain; 200 inches a year of irrigated rain in a place that receives less than15 inches naturally; a hunger to turn arid Southern California into the lush Pacific Northwest.

No place is this more true of than Claremont, the quaint college town on the eastern edge of L.A. County that likes to call itself the City of Trees and Ph.D.s. But this column is about the arboreal not the academic, for the community's dense canopy, framed around its street trees (every road has a dedicated species--camphor or elm, ginkgo, oak, or crepe myrtle, sycamore or liquid amber; and the city will give you the apt sapling should your front yard be so lacking), would be impossible to maintain without a reliable, plentiful, and cheap supply of water.

That gush only has been available for past 70 years or so. Aerial photographs of the Pomona Valley dating back to the late 1920s reveals just how few trees, orange groves notwithstanding, dotted the landscape; its relative starkness reflected its aridity.

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Aerial View of Claremont in the late 1920s | Claremontiana Collection, Honnold-Mudd Special Collections

Not so now. The present-day thick settlement and thicket of greenery is a direct result of the larger region's successful efforts to tap ever-more distant sources of water--first the Owens Valley and the Eastern slope of the Sierra via the Los Angeles Aqueduct; then the Colorado River Aqueduct; and ultimately the State Water Project, drawing snowmelt from the northern Sierra. Since the mid-twentieth century, Claremont, like the Southland in general, has benefitted enormously from the politics of water expropriation, and the massive investment in infrastructure that was its result. We paid good money to take other people's water so that our grass would be green, our pools would be full, and our shade luxuriously abundant.

Aerial View of Claremont in the early 1990s | Claremontiana Collection, Honnold-Mudd Special Collections

So this fall when the local purveyor--Golden State Water Company (GSWC), a subsidiary of American States Water Company--announced that it was seeking permission to jack up its rates by 24.54%, many in the town went ballistic. A loosely organized group, complete with its own Facebook page (Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates), has emerged.

Its members' outrage is understandable: amid a still-biting recession, with unacceptably high unemployment levels, and a foreboding sense that it is getting harder and harder to make ends meet, especially for the most poor among us, this is hardly the best time to inform customers that they will have to fork over more cash to pay for such an essential resource as water. In response, this set of aggrieved citizens is pushing back, one mark of which is their sound-bite lawn sign: Stop the Golden State Water Rip-Off!

For its part, GSWC does not believe it is bilking its monopolized clientele, but rather investing in the future: the increased rates it is seeking are scheduled to rebuild what it describes as its aging infrastructure, an argument it has made across its service area, from Barstow to Ojai.

Lawn sign | Image: Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates on Facebook
In a more economically robust past, much of the funding for such necessary replacement and updating came from federal and/or state budgets. Those moneys now are gone: the right-wing attack on earmarking of the congressional budget, for example, shut off a once-crucial spigot that representatives used to direct money to vital water projects. Another source under repeated assault from Tea Party budget-slashers has been the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, that once upon a time offered billions to state-priority projects to enhance public health and environmental clean up. The evisceration of the California state budget has dried up another pool of capital investment.

Who's left to foot the very large bill? The rate-payers, alone.

We're "paying for the power, the pump, to treat and move that water from the ground or from the reservoir," argues Susan Longville, who directs the Water Resources Institute at CSU-San Bernardino. And so we're also "paying for those carrying costs and the infrastructure that delivers it, and the water agencies just find themselves in the place where the rate the consumer is going to pay is the only place to turn."

That said, we always have paid these costs, albeit indirectly through a variety of taxing formulas. These mechanisms have masked our multiple contributions and decreased our individual share of these costs, for the burden has been spread out across the region, state, and nation. Now the hurt is magnified because it is directly borne by a precise population utilizing a particular water company. Our monthly bill is now a tax receipt, reflecting the very real cost of water in real time.

This situation will not change for those in Claremont (or their peers throughout the Inland Empire, who also have been hit with spiking water costs), even should they succeed in purchasing Golden State's local operations. On the contrary, if the city of 35,000 residents absorbs this responsibility--and the council is being pressured to do so--it will not decrease water rates. Claremont, even as the recession shrinks its tax base, will have to hire professionals to run and technicians to maintain its water-delivery systems; it will need to underwrite all expenses associated with evaluating and upgrading relevant pipes, pumps, and meters. There will be no savings to pass along to consumers; local control will be expensive.

Yet there is an alternative to GSWC's rate-increase proposal and the intense opposition it has engendered. But it requires shifting the focus of the current debate away from the question of how to stop water rates from rising to what consumers would gain if they do. It also requires Golden State to recast its request to the Public Utilities Commission for permission to boost its rates, and for the PUC to act as an honest broker.

Accept that some of the proposed increase must go to necessary investments in infrastructure, a goodly portion of which is upwards of 80 years old. Some of the proceeds from the new rates must also be invested in upgrading Golden State's antiquated billing system and its inefficient operations. For instance, innovative water companies such as the San Antonio (TX) Water System provide information on monthly bills that allows users to compare their water consumption with their neighbors, block by block--data that can profoundly ratchet down use.

To further incentivize conservation, GSWC should be required as well to increase funding to reimburse residential and commercial customers who switch to low-flow toilets, showerheads, and drip-irrigation systems (and who rip out water-sucking landscaping), practices common throughout the southwest. Finally, it must launch a robust educational campaign about the pressing need for additional conservation measures, a sign of company's commitment to building water-wise communities.

Put it another way: everyone in this region needs to know exactly how much it costs every time we wash the dishes, take a shower, or turn on a hose. Acting on this market-based information is the only way we will cut our consumption, and thus reduce our costs.

It is also the only way that we will wise up to the enviable, if dry, fact that we live in Southern California and not western Oregon.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every Wednesday on environmental issues. Read his previous posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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