The news in water these days is mostly about big bills in the legislature, trying to come up with a big fix for California water. I can’t get too worked up over it. I’ll be super pleased if they get the mandatory urban conservation measures passed, and they can start here in Sacramento, which is an utterly shameful water waster. I’ll be a trifle sad if they pass Sites Reservoir, because I’ve been to that valley and it is beautiful. I’ll be intrigued if they get the Delta governance structure put in place, because I think that’s a step towards a Peripheral Canal, but doesn’t guarantee anything. I’ll be guaranteed employment for the next decade if they pass the $10B bond to do all these things. So that’s what the papers are talking about. For my money, though, the most important water story I’ve seen in years is this one.
PALMDALE – Residents of one of the city’s newer housing tracts on the east side feel financially drained by the Palmdale Water District’s recent rate hike, which ranged from 65% to more than 140% for some customers.
…”My bill went from $12.80 to $185,” Summerford, a Neighborhood Watch captain, told the water board.
“My water bill went from $139 to $468,” Sanchez said at that meeting. Since then Sanchez received another monthly bill, one for $324. Together that meant she owed the water district $792, plus a prior balance that brought her total to $924.
Water bills of hundreds of dollars a month?! Man alive! I am generally heartless and unsympathetic to people who complain about water bills. I know they’ve been artificially cheap for years, as the environment absorbed part of the costs of moving water, and I know people got used to that. As their bills go up, I am generally glad. Yes. You live in Palmdale and I don’t see any rivers near you. You should expect that it will cost a lot for clean water to come out of your taps. Still, even for heartless me, an unexpected jump of hundreds of dollars is a blow.
The middle part of the article goes on about a very familiar story, in which the intrepid neighbors decide to take on the unresponsive water district. I’ve seen this one, so I’ll tell you the ending. One of the neighbors will get FIRED UP! and empowered and activist. She’ll run for the board of directors, vowing reform and low water prices forever. When she gets elected, she’ll be faced with the realities of buying, moving and cleaning water, as well as maintaining the physical insfrastructure. She will realize the rates are still too low and the district is still eating their reserves; that the previous board made inevitable decisions and did their best to keep the constituents happy. She’ll end up supporting the next rate hike and be vilified as a traitor by her former activist buddies who got her elected. Good luck with that, Ms. Sanchez or Ms. Summerford.
But the ending of the article. This is it. This is the turning of the California dream. The rumor I heard was that railroad companies started Sunset magazine, to get people to move west and take their trains back and forth. The railroads had nurseries full of palm trees, for cities to line their boulevards. And Sunset magazine sold the dream. Live here, in the sunshine, in a small bungalow with a yard and two fruit trees. I don’t know if that is accurate and I don’t know how the dream got supersized into a huge tract home. But Ms. Sanchez was clearly in the grip of this dream:
Sanchez had been elated to move into her first home but now has second thoughts, especially because she has cut back her outdoor water use significantly to try to lower her monthly bills.
“It’s sad for first-time buyers,” she said. “I feel really disappointed. I came up here working on a home that needed a lawn. You put all our money into it to make it look nice. Now my lawn is going back to where it was. I feel discouraged. I feel like we should have stayed in Santa Clarita and lived in our apartment.”
There it is. There’s the end. This is the turning point I’ve been waiting for. With water costs this high, she’d rather be in a city apartment. I’ve been wondering for years what would herd people in from the exurbs. It struck me as a race between costs of water and costs of firefighting. For a while, the cost of gas and the commute was coming on strong, but that horse fizzled. Now we need people to know this before they lock themselves into houses. Ms. Sanchez, don’t become a water district activist! Spend your energy telling your friends not to do what you did! Tell them the house and lawn isn’t worth it. You can still save them. That’s what we need.