Down The Drain
Some thirsty citizens strive to flush away thePeninsula water district.
Thursday, December 7, 2000
Mark Twain''s words "Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over" ring truer than ever today. In the year 2001, you may not see shotgun showdowns between riled ranchers. Nevertheless, some of Monterey Peninsula Water Management District''s recent moves to shut off the faucet through stricter regulation--and its resounding failure to find a permanent solution to the water crunch--have some natives getting mighty restless.
That''s why conservative ringleader Bob McKenzie decided to organize people who are interested in dissolving the district. "All of a sudden there seemed to be a nucleus of people who are of a mind that the district serves no useful purpose," he says.
In 1978, then-State Senator Henry Mello drafted legislation to create the water district, charging it to "manage, augment and protect water resources for the benefit of the community and the environment." It''s the "augment" part that critics say the district has failed to accomplish. Twenty-two years and $34 million later, the Peninsula still lacks a long-term water supply.
Axing the district is not a new idea. The 1999 Monterey County Grand Jury recommended doing away with it, and McKenzie''s group wants to put that advice into action. He says his group of about 200 businessfolk and property owners, Dissolve the District, has met once to discuss a strategy and is currently researching legal avenues to dismantle the board.
McKenzie''s movement gained momentum when water Boardmember Ron Chesshire announced at last month''s meeting that he may seek an advisory vote next November on whether or not the district should continue to exist. The news was met with a round of applause from an audience packing the Monterey City Council Chambers.
Chesshire''s beef balances on board actions within the last nine months that have tightened restrictions on what little available water remains. The board has voted to halt water credit transfers and to regulate private wells. The board''s decision to fully explore alternatives to a dam has further delayed a four-year-old application from California-American Water to build a new dam on the Carmel River.
"Every step has been to restrict, restrict, restrict the water more and more in the name of managing it," Chesshire says. "We should be doing all we can to augment the water supply."
Certainly, as supporters of the dam, both McKenzie and Chesshire share frustration over the current board''s 4-3 anti-dam configuration, which came about last March with the election of three anti-dam boardmembers--Molly Erickson, Kris Lindstrom and Zan Henson--plus the continued no-dam stance of County Supervisor and water Boardmember Dave Potter.
"We have four people on that board who say they are anti-dam," Chesshire says. "Why don''t we put Cal-Am out of its misery and shit-can the whole deal?"
It''s not just the pro-dam folks that are frustrated. In last month''s board meeting, Potter said he was willing to consider seeking voters'' advice regarding the district''s existence. And Lindstrom ran and won on a platform that, bizarrely, included dissolving the district, which he sees as an expensive bureaucracy with responsibilities that overlap other agencies''. However, he says he would like to see a water solution in place before disbanding the district.
The biggest criticism of McKenzie''s movement so far is the lack of any ideas on how to replace the water district with a body whose purpose is to find a water solution. But in McKenzie''s mind, nothing could be worse than the current situation. "My theory is there was a life before the district," he says. "We can go back to that life."
Then there''s the issue of local control. Without a local water district, regulation of Cal-Am and the task of finding a sustainable water supply could revert back to the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency that the water district reports to. Charging the CPUC with the final word on the dam or any other project would take decisionmaking out of local hands. While the CPUC does take public input, it''s not legally bound to reflect that input in its decisions, whereas the water district is.
That''s good or bad, depending on whom you talk to. "Without the district...[finding a long-term water supply] would be out of local hands and would not be subject to all the delays that the water district represents," McKenzie says.
Others say the water district should continue to be managed locally in order to reflect the will of area residents--at least until a water solution is agreed upon. "[The district] was created to manage the water resources on the Monterey Peninsula," says former Senator Mello, speaking from his home in Watsonville. "There''s nothing in the bill saying it should go away."