Tuesday, July 06, 2010

San Jose Considers Water Privatization

A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News provides a good opportunity to review and discuss the issue of privatization of water utlities in a concrete context. The reason for the proposed sale is the budget of San Jose, like many municipalities in California, is facing rough times. There are many details that Greens need to address. One is whether the failure to gain this $50 million by the city will result in the loss of services. This is the current claim by the city. Details need to be provided to get a clearer picture of this. Can these funds be used for public schools? Greens should ask this and establish public education as THE priority during these difficult times.

The article raises other issues such as the possible layoffs of 40 municipal workers. This also is an issue that can be raised in the discussion on the deal. There would seem to be a way to establish a mechanism, consistent with seniority rights to include existing municipal workers in the enlarged private system. The issue of water rates could be phased in after a review of the existing rates for the San Jose Water Company (SJWC) with a possible moratorium on shutoffs for the first year.

Structurally, the SJWC will provide similar services without the same system of "public accountability". At issue is state law and existing city ordinances in regards to rates of private water services. The leverage in going ahead with the sale might be to improve the engagement of rate payers in pricing issues. The issue of Hetch-Hetchy water use begs to be addressed through regional long-term water planning to move towards sustainable water usage and the development of a water budget that defines allocations and prioritization of them. The premise of San Jose's entitlement to Hetch-Hetchy water is the role of the Santa Clara Water District's (SCWD) ability to review allocations and its role in representing the public welfare. Our questions as Greens need to be "How does the SCWD define the public interest in water allocations?" "What is the existing mechanism for users and stakeholders in the region in water administration and management?" "What are the current conflicts between users in the region in regards to allocations and what needs to be done in the future to address water supply issues?"

There is no new water supply here. Whether there is a sale or not will not impact on the supply issue. Likewise, it is not primarily an issue of fighting cutbacks, unless Greens can make it so in regards to education funding. The SCWD has already cut 25 employees from its payroll. It is worth saying that the SCWD is entering its third year without rate increases and this certainly should be included in the debate. SCWD has implemented the state law in regards to conservation measures. One interesting side note is "Santa Clara County's civil grand jury has accused the chairman of the countywide water district of flouting state ethics laws by promoting a series of district projects likely to increase the value of his family's land holdings in Alviso." If anything this reinforces our own position of the need for planning to be integrated with management and inclusion of users, the environment and the science. it also provides a glimpse into the gap between existing "public" regulation and what is in the public interest as determined by the region itself. Accountability requires engagement of diverse users. This prevents phoney numbers games in the supply issue and present a dialogue directly with those on the ground (or in the water as the case may be).

Our position in the California Green Party Water Planning Platform plank provides guidance for Greens in Santa Clara in addressing the issue with clarity. "Integrate land use with water use for urban planning decisions. Political bodies, such as municipal water authorities, need to be more inclusive in the representation of users, hydrologists, environmental health professionals, and environmental advocates in the region and address the issues affecting the regional supply and demand of the resource, as well as water quality. Presently, the interests and concerns of real estate and development interests have a disproportionate voice in new allocations." The road forward has to be based on sustainability and establishing the political entities capable of integrating Grassroots Democracy and Ecological Wisdom.

No comments: