Public Water Now leaders celebrate the victory on election night. From Left: George Riley, Public Water Now Director; Melodie Chrislock, Communications Director; Phil Wellman, Advertising Strategist (Wellman Advertising & Design). Photo credit: Bob Coble.
By Mary Grant
Voters in Monterey County, California, went to the polls on November 6th and jump-started a public takeover of their water system from California-American Water (Cal Am), a subsidiary of the nation’s largest private water corporation.
Measure J, which passed by 56 percent to 44 percent, authorizes the local water district to study the feasibility of public ownership, and if practical, to purchase the water system from Cal Am. Voters gave the water district a clear mandate to pursue public ownership of their water system.
“Our water is the foundation of our community,” said George Riley, the director of Public Water Now. “It’s far too important to be controlled by a private corporation for profit.”
Riley was so committed to protecting the water system that he also ran for and won a seat on the water district board. He will be there to help guide the process of studying public control.
Monterey County voters were not afraid to take on big corporate interest to protect their water. They were California’s first major oil-producing county to ban fracking in 2016. And the victory for Measure J was the result of a years-long effort by public water advocates.
Organizing on the Ground
Public Water Now, a local community-based organization, led the fight for public water, taking on a deep-pocketed corporate smear campaign.
Cal Am spent about $3 million attacking the local group through every avenue possible: TV, radio, social media, newspapers and mailers. And the company filed multiple lawsuits to undermine Public Water Now and even attempted to keep the question off the ballot in the first place.
Despite being outspent by nearly 19-to-1, Public Water Now prevailed. It won with $160,000 raised from local retirees, nurses, ranchers and other residents. Cal Am had millions of corporate dollars at its disposal, but Public Water Now had hundreds of volunteers, the facts, and rightful outrage at corporate water costs on its side.
Hard Work Pays Off
This was not the first time Public Water Now put the issue on the ballot.
A referendum on public water appeared as Measure O on the June, 2014 ballot, during a primary election when voter turnout was low. Cal Am poured more than $2.4 million into defeating that measure, using its millions to sway local politicians, and blast household mailboxes and television sets with ads to stoke fears about the community’s water supply.
Since then, the company has made little progress at establishing a new water supply, and water rates have skyrocketed. By 2017, Monterey customers of Cal Am paid the highest household drinking water bills in the country for users of large water systems. Household bills, including surcharges, increased by 68 percent from 2015 to 2017. In 2017, a Monterey household using 60,000 gallons a year paid more than $1,200 for drinking water service.
Fortunately, Public Water Now didn’t give up. They regrouped and mapped out a new way forward. They collected more than 11,000 petitions to put Measure J on this November's ballot. This time, Public Water Now gained the support of many local elected leaders, including state officials, city council members, mayors and the county supervisor, as well as organizations including the League of Women Voters, labor unions, environmental groups and the county Democratic Party. They hosted town halls to counter the misinformation and misleading claims of the company.
Their efforts paid off.
After more than 100 years of private control of their water, residents on the Monterey Peninsula are moving toward public ownership. Within the next nine months, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District will have to submit a plan to study the feasibility of public ownership of the water system. If the study finds the public option viable, the district will then have to “secure and maintain public ownership of all water production, storage and delivery system assets and infrastructure providing services within its territory.”
Voters gave the district explicit authority to use its eminent domain powers to purchase the system. American Water’s track record across the country, and in California specifically, shows that the corporation will use every legal avenue available to try to stop the sale and jack up the purchase price.
The fight is not over, but Monterey is fortunate to have a team of dedicated water advocates working on its behalf. Learn more about Public Water Now.