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Water Works (Nov. 21, 2001)

For the past three years, I’ve been urging the Board of Supervisors to assert their leadership, via the dormant county Water Agency, in the critical area of water issues and policies.

At Tuesday’s weekly meeting, the Supes decided it was time to inject a bit of life into a nearly comatose body whose stated mission is to “assure that an adequate quantity and quality of water will be available to meet the present and future needs” of county residents. It’s long been my opinion that the Water Agency should take the lead in forging a cooperative working relationship with all of the county’s water districts, since any policies developed around water obviously affect the entire county. Moreover, as recent events attest — i.e., the bitter fight over imposed water contracts in the Ukiah Valley — ad hoc, inconsistent, and backroom-devised water policies eventually trigger political conflict.

Expressly, the Board, by unanimous vote, directed staff to “begin work with an external consultant to develop a list of county water related issues to assist the Board in more specifically defining both the short and long-term goals and objectives of the Water Agency.”

The plan is to meet in early December with water resource specialists from UC Davis Cooperative Extension, Chico State University, and the county Farm Advisor’s Office. The main goal of that upcoming session is to assess what “assistance the California Regional Watershed Management Advisor, David Lewis, might provide in the development of an action plan and scope of study for our water issues.”

Usually, I’m squeamish about outside consultants being brought inside government — there’s much too much use of that revolving door. However, in this instance, I think it will prove beneficial to utilize the services of these particular university-based consultants because unlike their private sector counterparts, they’re probably less self-interested when it comes to pecuniary and political rewards. Also, given the highly-charged current running through the local politics of water issues, it makes sense — during the preliminary stages, anyway — to bring in somebody outside of and unconnected to the local water scene. 

Having said all that, it’s also imperative that the Supes insure that each and every water district throughout the county is brought into the process of reshaping, re-organizing, and re-ordering the county Water Agency. They must be at the same table and at every meeting with the consultants and county staff, all working together on resurrecting not only an inert agency, but also kick-starting good public policy on water issues. The local water district boards and respective staffs are an untapped source of knowledge and experience which must be drawn on as the county develops its plans and policies on water.

For example, the Water Agency, which is governed by the Supes sitting as a separate board, has operated without an executive director for years. Attempts to recruit an agency director have been fruitless. Once an action plan for the Water Agency is completed, the Supes will launch a search for a director. Again, it’s critical that the local water districts are brought into that process. Their input and advice on the recruitment process, job description, and related qualifications will go a long way towards fostering the best opportunity for a successful outcome.

Likewise, the local water districts will be primary sources in providing information not currently available on such significant things as water quantity and quality, and infrastructure assessment and needs. Needless to say, water districts, along with the public, must be involved at every phase as long-range goals, objectives and policies on water are discussed and formulated.

Most of the county’s 20 or so water districts operate on shoestring budgets. Many of the smaller districts keep day-to-day operations going by using baling wire and duct tape. The tiny Wesport Water District continues to operate under a state of local emergency declaration due to insufficient water flows. At the south end of the county, the bantam-sized city of Point Arena is scrapping with its privately-owned water district over a proposed 93 percent rate increase. Earlier, the Public Utilities Commission OK’d a provisional boost in rates in the 70 percent range. The Point Arena city council is fighting the rate increases, but its options are limited on the water-short coast. The council is considering forming a municipal water district, but that takes time, money and lawyers. 

The Laytonville Water District has initiated annexation procedures before the Local Agency Formation Commission. The district is attempting to expand and improve its present infrastructure and delivery systems. Additionally it is looking into the feasibility of a first-ever sewer system for the north county town. 

During last week’s Fetzer subdivision appeals hearing — the project was unanimously OK’d by the BOS — Supe David Colfax queried a water specialist from the county’s Environmental Health Division about water problems in Anderson Valley. Colfax said that many of his constituents have concerns about overdrafting of valley water by ag users and others. The water expert replied that as far as he knew Anderson Valley didn’t have any “water problems.” He also stated that the area generally had “copious” amounts of water. Of course, no one knows with any certainty what the true “water picture” is in Boonville, or any other part of the county, because there has never been any systematic attempt to gather and correlate basic water data. Right now it’s a shot in the dark. Water shortage or copious amounts of water? Illegal drafting or “no problem”?

Down in the Ukiah Valley, water districts, including the city of Ukiah, have run afoul of the state Division of Water Rights. The state regulatory agency believes the districts may be illegally taking water from the Russian River. Keep in mind that the entire Ukiah Valley is entitled to only 8,000 acre feet of Russian River water. Yet, preliminary data indicates that all valley users may be tapping 20,000 acre feet.

Well, I’m sure you get the picture. There are more than enough reasons, not to mention problems, for the Supes to establish the County Water Agency as the lead entity on water issues. I rest my case.

State Budget, Economy Worsen

As far as the state is concerned, local government funding is so low on the totem pole it’s invisible.

Ten years ago, the governor and state legislature literally stole the property-tax base away from local government by permanently shifting those revenues to meet educational funding mandates. 

Prior to the state heisting local property taxes, Mendocino County received 42 cents of each property-tax dollar. After the stick-up, the county’s share was slashed to a mere 28 cents. 

Each year, Mendocino County “shifts” to schools $7 million to $8 million in property taxes it used to retain in its coffers. 

Statewide some $3 billion to $4 billion annually are transferred away from local government under the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund. 

By all estimations there’s a $12 billion to $14 billion shortfall in next year’s budget which does not include unknown billions of dollars committed to the bailout of the electrical utilities and long-term power contracts. But the bad news just got worse, and it’s going to have consequences right here in Mendoland.

For the first time in my recollection, a California governor has taken action to cut an existing budget. We’re not talking about next year’s budget, we’re talking about the $101 billion budget approved just a few months ago. In reality though, Davis doesn’t have much choice but to make the hard decision. Of course, Gov. Doofus brought on a lot the economic decline all by himself: His secret energy dealings coupled with the boneheaded bailout of the electrical cartels, are main contributors to California’s sinking economy.

This week, Gov. Davis announced he’s whacking $2.2 billion out of the budget. Since schools get the biggest slice of the budgetary pie, they are going to suffer the largest losses. Davis plans to trim more than $800 million from education programs. That’s a lot of pain to be inflicted by the guy who touts himself as the “Education Governor.” 

Davis proposes to cut, reduce or eliminate funding for poorly performing schools, a $250 million subsidy for energy relief for schools to deal with higher energy bills (that’s a real irony, ain’t it?), money to equalize school spending, and rewards for teachers and schools making significant academic gains.

It appears that no area of government has been spared the ax, but education is taking about half of the cuts.

Overall, the $2.2 billion in cuts amounts to about 2.5 percent of the current state budget. 

You can bet the farm the county soon will be making adjustments to its $167 million budget, also. You can also bet the back 80 that come next year, the state will balance its multi-billion deficit on local government. Look out for another heist.

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