Anyone but Alco
Salinas tries to stop shady water company from expanding.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
To the chagrin of city leaders, a Salinas water company notorious for drinking water violations will likely expand service into the city’s future growth area.
The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on Thursday, Feb. 15, is expected to grant Alisal Water Corporation’s request to provide water to about 7,500 homes planned northeast of Boronda Road. The city of Salinas and California Water Service Company want the company to go through a stringent application process, citing a federal court order that bars Alisal Water from obtaining new assets without court consent.
In 2002, a federal judge ordered the company to turn over all its Monterey County water systems into receivership except for Alco Water Service, which provides water to about 30,000 people in East Salinas. Judge Jeremy Fogel punished Alisal Water for falsifying water monitoring reports, neglecting to test water for lead and copper, and committing a host of other Safe Drinking Water Act violations—232 in all.
“The quality of water is bad. It tastes terrible.”
Alisal Water once owned systems in Prunedale, Moss Landing and San Jerardo, a farm cooperative near Salinas. Up until recently, residents of San Jerardo bathed in nitrate-laden water, suffering skin rashes and other health problems.
Councilman Sergio Sanchez, whose district includes part of Alco’s service area, says the water company neglects its customers. “The water pressure is bad,” he says. “The quality of water is bad. It tastes terrible. It looks terrible.”
If the PUC allows Alco to expand their service area, Sanchez says, they will reward the company for providing shoddy service. “(Alco) can’t even service their current customers.”
Tom Adcock, vice president of Alisal Water Corp., says the expansion will improve service because it will create a larger customer base to cover its operational costs. Moreover, Salinas selected Alco as the water provider for a portion of the central area and all of the eastern area of its new growth area when it updated its General Plan in 2002. Adcock says at the time, nobody expressed concern about Alco’s expansion. “Water issues are an integral part of any general plan or [environmental impact report] process,” Adcock says. “It has been covered. It has been documented. Not a single comment was presented.”
Salinas City Attorney Vanessa Vallarta says the general plan designation was only preliminary and it’s premature for the water provider to be selected when the land hasn’t been annexed and the environmental review process is still underway. Moreover, the City says Alco needs court approval to expand.
Adcock says the company is not violating a court order but instead wants to follow one. The expansion would allow Alco to build a water storage tank requested by the court.
Cal Water officials, whose service area also abuts the city’s future growth area, refutes this reasoning. “Judge Fogel did not order the improvements cited in the Draft Resolution so that Alco could expand by adding 7,355 new customers,” says Cal Water in a letter commenting on the draft resolution. “To the contrary, Judge Fogel removed customers and service areas from Alco and barred any expansion without his approval.” The water company also requests that Alco get written approval from Fogel before the PUC grants their expansion.
Vallarta says the PUC granted Alco a rate increase in December 2005 so that it could make improvements to its existing water system.
“One of the City’s concerns is that if Alco is allowed to expand its service area,” she says, “it will divert all these new rate payer funds to cover the costs of expansion rather than using them to upgrade the existing facilities.”
Still, the Water Division of the PUC recommends the commission grant Alco’s request and not hold a public hearing on the matter. According to the resolution, Alco showed that a water supply exists, and that “the extension request was preceded by a show of public necessity and convenience for water service.”
Fred Curry, chief of the PUC’s water branch, says Alco has the right to extend its service area to neighboring parcels even without approval from the PUC.
Even if Alco gets approval for expansion, Sanchez says, he is not going to stop fighting. He has tried to oust Alco since he was elected in 2002.
“Hopefully the PUC will grant us a hearing,” Sanchez says. “If they don’t…obviously then the gloves are off.”