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Water Wars

How small communities overthrow their private water companies

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"We walked the community three different times," he says.

First they rang doorbells and told homeowners about the rate increase. After that, they calculated what it would cost to fund a bond measure with local property taxes and sue for eminent domain. They estimated $11 million, which worked out to about $60 a month per homeowner. Then the group printed their calculations on a flier and took it door-to-door.

Once everyone was aware of the tax increase, Graham put his background in PR to work. Walkers climbed porches again, this time collecting only the names of those who were in favor of the bond measure.

"We looked for anyone who was influential—business families, prominent families," he recalls. "We asked them if they'd be willing to put their names on another flier."

Because it's such a small town, and so many people know each other, that strategy worked well. Graham recalls that when activists broadcast the third flier with 300 family names on it, homeowners scanned the list for names they knew. After the third walkthrough, a majority of the town voted to do something extraordinary—give themselves a $600-a-year property tax hike to buy their pipes.

But the water company fought back.

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS The small town of Felton broke free from Cal American Water thanks to a door-to-door effort prevailing over shady tactics.
  • KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORS The small town of Felton broke free from Cal American Water thanks to a door-to-door effort prevailing over shady tactics.

Nearly 10 years later, Evan Jacobs with California American Water says Felton's water infrastructure, though locally owned, will continue to have costly maintenance issues. The reason: many of the pipes serving the mountain town were laid in the late 1800s.

"They are not saving money," he says, referring to a rate hike of 53 percent proposed by San Lorenzo Valley Water District, the local company that took over Felton's water, earlier this year.

"Now they're paying the acquisition cost and facing another cost because of infrastructure," he says.

According to Graham—and confirmed by current SLVWD manager James Mueller—the water-treatment facility was in need of major upgrades when the local company seized it.

"Specifically, there were leaks that had been reported as leaks by consumers for years and were not identified," Mueller says.

Jacobs doesn't contest this, but points to the age of the infrastructure, coupled with Felton's remote wooded terrain.

"There are a lot of steep hillsides and redwood trees, which love to wrap their roots around water pipes and crack them," he says. Cal American's rate increase was partially proposed to fix one of the two main water lines feeding the treatment plant, he explains.

Aging infrastructure is a common problem facing small rural towns served by private water companies, Jacobs says. Without public subsidies, private companies are forced to charge the actual cost of maintaining these crumbling systems.

So, according to Jacobs, Cal American tried to inform the Felton group that their local bid wouldn't really save any money in the long run.

But according to Graham, it was more than that—an aggressive PR strategy that included deceptive websites, astroturf groups and push polls. Graham paints it as a costly example of the company ignoring what its ratepayers obviously wanted—to break free.

In a confidential PR plan, shared with the Bohemian by Felton FLOW, Cal American states: "Our strategy is to make the road a rocky one for proponents."

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