Measure O contest heats up on the Monterey Peninsula

Court requires change to ballot label and ballot argument statements; mayors line up in opposition to the measure that proposes public take-over of Cal Am’s water system.

On April 3rd, Superior Court Judge Thomas Wills ruled that the ballot label for Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (MPWMD or district) Measure O must be changed.

The measure, which had the ballot label, “Shall the citizen-circulated initiative entitled ‘Monterey Peninsula Water System Local Ownership and Cost Saving Initiative’ be adopted?,” is slated for the June 3, 2014 election.  Judge Wills issued his ruling that the ballot label must change because there is no “absolute certainty” that passing the initiative would result in cost savings.

A new ballot label, “Shall the ordinance, Measure O, which directs the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to adopt a policy to move toward public ownership of all water systems within its boundaries by conducting a feasibility study, and if deemed feasible, move forward with acquisition of all such water systems’ assets, be adopted?,” has been submitted for approval.

The ballot label issue was the most important of three lawsuits.

“That was important to us because a lot of people would vote for cost savings without even reading it,” said Cal Am spokesman Kevin Tilden to the Monterey County Weekly.

The other two lawsuits challenged language in the ballot argument statements.  Because the courts have leeway to allow for rhetoric and opinion in the ballot arguments, mostly minor changes were made in those cases.  However a major factual statement regarding Cal Am’s projected water rate increases was revised.  A ballot argument statement claiming, “Cal Am admits its rates will TRIPLE over six years with no accountability to you” was changed to “Cal Am states its rates should increase by 41 percent by the end of 2018” to match Cal Am’s actual projections.

Measure O is supported by the community group Public Water Now, which was formed as a backlash against water rate increases implemented by California American Water Company (Cal Am).  The group argues that Cal Am “is irresponsible, has mismanaged the water system in the Monterey Peninsula District and is over charging residents.”  Using data from the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, Public Water Now argues that citizens served by public water systems pay lower rates—and considers public ownership “as the greatest weapon against the future high cost of water.”

If passed, Measure O would

  • Require the district to establish and maintain public ownership of all water systems in its jurisdiction and, if economically feasible, to acquire the Cal Am water system by negotiated purchase, if possible, or by eminent domain, if a negotiated  purchase is not possible
  • Require the district to complete a  “Feasibility Analysis and Acquisition Plan” that includes an appraisal of the system, the purchase and annual operating costs, revenues, potential funding sources, net savings to ratepayers, implementation plan and statement of whether the findings indicate that ratepayers would realize long-term benefits from public ownership of the system
  • Require the district to begin the acquisition process if the Feasibility Analysis and Acquisition Plan indicates that purchase of the system is feasible and beneficial to the ratepayers. 

The Monterey Peninsula is over-appropriated with a water crisis imminent.  Under a cease and desist order from the State Water Resources Control Board, Cal Am must reduce its pumping from the Carmel River by 70% by December 31, 2016.  Cal Am is developing the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, which features a 9,750 AF/year desalination facility (to be reduced to 6,500 AF/year if Cal Am can procure the other 3,500 AF/year from the district’s proposed groundwater replenishment program) and expansion of the company’s aquifer storage and recovery project.

Opposition to Measure O is voiced by a campaign organization called A Risk We Cannot Afford, who is running the No on Measure O campaign with financial backing coming primarily from Cal Am.  The Opponents of Measure O argue that the proponent’s concern about public ownership is poorly timed.  Because of the coming water crisis, they dissuade voting for a complete switch in the operation and management of the water system and argue that development of the water supply project would come to a halt, and the district would have to spend time and money on the feasibility study and legal fees associated with pursuing a purchase at the expense of pursuing developing technology and infrastructure to address the water crisis.  They also dispute the proponents’ claim that public ownership would lead to lower water rates.

Measure O is also opposed by 11 of the 12 mayors within Monterey County, who cite as reasons unacceptable risk to the progress on securing a new water supply and uncertainty over whether rate-savings would be realized under public ownership.

“This, in the minds of many of us, would be an extreme disruption and could cause a delay in the Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Supply Project,” Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala says. “And we have no clue whatsoever that a publicly-run water company would be more cost effective.”

The issue was discussed when the mayors considered a resolution opposing the measure at a meeting of the Monterey County Mayor’s Association.

The 12th mayor, Bruce Delgado of Marina, abstained saying that because he is new to the issue, he is uncomfortable voting yes or no.

Written by Marta Weismann