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Water Wars

How small communities overthrow their private water companies

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The document reads like a political campaign, outlining intentions of "making this an unpleasant experience" for the incumbent county supervisor and convincing at least one-third of the voters that localization "is a bad idea for them."

Jacobs confirmed that the document, sent to him via email, was real.

"We wanted to show that local takeover would result in an additional tax burden for customers," he says.

The packet contains a letter drafted for Felton homeowners. The San Lorenzo Valley Chamber of Commerce is cited, in large bold letters at the top.

"Outside organizers want to put another tax on Felton residents," it reads, adding further down that "[t]his tax won't pay for better schools, fire protection or police. This tax doesn't improve anything."

At the bottom of the letter, in miniscule font, is printed: "This letter was made possible through a grant from California American Water."

"The water companies play dirty," Graham says, adding later that the worst part was the push polling.

Jacobs denies that the poll, attached to the document, is in fact a push poll. A subtle form of smear campaigning, push polls begin with open-ended questions and then proceed to questions designed to slur. Negative statements that aren't necessarily true—e.g., "If you knew so-and-so was engaged in money laundering, would you be more or less likely to vote for him/her?"—are masked as simple information gathering.

"You can decide if you think it's a push poll," Jacobs says.

Performed by Voter Consumer Research—which, according to the Los Angeles Times, conducted polls for the 2000 Bush campaign—it starts out with a bland question: "Do you believe things in Felton are going in the right direction, or have they gotten off on the wrong track?" It then, subtly, gets into water, asking speakers to rate California American Water as one of many "people or organizations in the news," along with state senators and local politicians. Quickly it becomes more specific, asking about rates and local water control. While the questions do represent both sides, questions about local takeover certainly don't have the rosiest tone. "Still other people believe . . . [l]ocal water should be under public control even at a cost of thousands of dollars in new taxes per household," it reads.

Important to Graham at the time was how much ratepayer money funded Cal American's campaign.

"I don't know how much it cost, but it was not ratepayer money," Jacobs says. He adds that the campaign was funded by shareholder money, which doesn't come from rate increases and isn't overseen by the public PUC.

HIGH BILLS An effort in Ojai to break free from Golden State Water will need two-thirds of the vote.
  • HIGH BILLS An effort in Ojai to break free from Golden State Water will need two-thirds of the vote.

Archives from a Tennessee newspaper in 1999 report that similar PR battles—between Cal American's sister Tennessee American and local takeover efforts in Chattanooga and Peoria, Ill.—cost the company $4.9 million, with the majority spent on Chattanooga.

"We didn't even spend $300,000 in the last mayoral campaign," a woman is quoted as saying about the fight.

During that campaign, local takeover efforts failed.

Meanwhile, back in Lake County's Lucerne, policemen patrol water meetings for crowd control, business owners talk about paying $800 a month and picketers line streets with signs that read: "Bring our water down or get out of town!!"

Craig Bach, the president of Lucerne FLOW, says there are some unique challenges facing the town—where almost 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty rate.

"People who have trouble putting food on the table don't have time to organize," he says, adding, "There are a lot of seniors here living on $800 a month or less."

The 66-year-old, who still works as an electrical contractor, says the person doing PR for Lucerne FLOW has passed away, and that it's simply hard to amass the support needed to fuel a local movement with so few people in town.

But he's not hopeless. He has an appointment to speak at the local Democratic meeting, and he continues to reach out to politicians.

"I don't have any immediate answers," he says.

Still, according to Jim Graham, ratepayers—even in small districts—can take control of their water.

"The towns that are most successful are the small towns," he says. "If you're in a big town, the water company can print newspaper ads and buy time on NPR, they can send you slick fliers, but they can't go door-to-door. We had so few people that everyone knew everyone else. Small communities can create a united front."

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