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October, 2003

Water Rate Hike To Come From MMWD
By Carol Sterritt

   Lately I have been researching the topic of local water rates being increased dramatically. Apparently, our local water agency, Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is considering, and in a rather behind-the-scenes fashion, a complete make-over of processing and billing customers. Although most customers will only suffer an increase of about 9%, others might see a boost of as much of 97%. Except for the Marin Independent Journal posting a few note-worthy announcements as to meetings and public hearings, the issue is pretty much under most people's radar. Last month, MMWD customer bills did have a short and sweet note to the effect that there would be a rate hike. But the significance of this hike was not mentioned.
   Although I frequently end my articles by proposing a question or two, this article will feature a significant number of questions. I'll begin with the most pressing question: why are we going into "drought-mode" when there is not drought? What is the emergency? Since people in the County will be hit up for a 97% increase if they have the misfortune of being identified among the top tier of water users, shouldn't there be an emergency? Or is this matter of billing the top tier simply a convenient way of scapegoating a random group of people to pay off the increased costs of business that MMWD has experienced? Today MMWD will charge a hefty fine to the "top-tier." Tomorrow you'll pay more for your water if you wear blue shoes. 
   Let's ask a few more questions. How is it possible, in the scheme of things, to conserve water from one year for the next? Water is a different substance than oil-it evaporates. What you do not use today might not be there tomorrow, anyway. Currently our reservoirs stand at 81% of capacity. There is no drought; we have just finished the long hot summer months, and possibly by the time you read this in October, it will be raining. So what gives?
   To justify the MMWD's new scheme of things, the fearless MMWD board members emphasize the spectre of drought again and again-in order to scare you and me and the rest of the public into accepting the new nightmare of higher bills. "We have to be able to provide water for people to flush their toilets, we have to have enough water for the hospitals," board member Alex Forman reminded us. "That's our job." Several board members have made remarks to the effect that although our water situation is fine now, "what if it doesn't rain next year?" 
   Yeah, right. And what if a meteorite aims its fiery little head at Point Reyes. Ooh, I'm SO scared. Ever since I moved to Marin County in 1994, I have noticed that regardless of who sits on the MMWD board, they are constantly coming up with the refrain, "What if it doesn't rain next... year, next month, next week." Ya know what? It almost always does rain at some point in the near future. In fact, although there was significant drought suffered by the South Bay during much of the 1980's, only one of those many years qualified as a drought here in Marin, and that drought was a minor glitch. Our pine trees stayed green, our toilets were often flushed, etc. But for all those many years, MMWD consistently croaked on like a nightmare frog, that there might be a drought, that the rain we experienced recently was only "a mirage." (Actual quote from a 1989 IJ article.) You might see and feel the rain. I might too. But to MMWD it all adds up to a mass hallucination that will not allow them for one minute to give up on the possibility of a drought and its resulting rate hikes. 
   So this year, perhaps to keep up with the Bush policy of pre-emptive strikes, we are having pre-emptive rate hikes. The entire affair had made some residents grumble a bit about the process. "What about an oversight process?" they ask. Does the Marin Municipal Water District answer to anyone? Is there any political body existing above MMWD that can serve as a Public Utilities Commission, or is MMWD free to simply make up whatever rules that it wants? If it decides on upping the ante 97% this year, can it decide to go even higher later? Six months or a year from now? Has the agency be audited recently? If so, by whom?
   Plus, get this-what if you are creating a drought by conserving for a drought? Long distance airplane passengers often notice that even in the driest of the Great Plains states, you can spot fluffy rain clouds sitting directly above or a short ways beyond an actual oasis. The clouds in those areas seem nourished by whatever skimpy town or trailer park lies below. It appears that if you don't put moisture into the system, you are less likely to get water out of the system. (Biology students who have encountered the "hydrologic cycle" understand this concept.) Besides, when users are made to cut back on water, often pesticide use is increased, as stressed plants suffer and become disease or pest-ridden. With increased pesticide use, will the health of entire neighborhoods suffer? Also, when I water my yard, within an hour I can see butterflies and cabbage moths and birds rejoicing. What stress are we putting our wildlife under when we go into a no-holds barred, no watering-unless-your-house-is-on-fire type of mode.
   And fire itself. Won't there be an increased danger of fire? Two years ago when my property had neighbors who were heavy smokers and rather careless people, I watered heavily. Did I save myself from a catastrophe? I'll never know, but the likelihood exists that I did.
   Furthermore, will there be sensible exemptions?  Hopefully heavy users who because of an emergency must suddenly use large water amounts will be allowed the extra H2O without suffering financially. From my work as a home health aide, I know from experience-sick people often use more water than the healthy. A person taking certain drugs to stop pneumonia often experiences bouts of diarrhea, and the laundry must run continually. Those in the process of dying often have house guests, and you can imagine how water rates soar when two or three families converge on the home of one person who normally only watered a small yard and took an occasional shower. And in healthy families, bathing babies and keeping diapers clean takes water. During former rate hikes, Laundromats were not given exemptions, so people living in apartments found that a single load of laundry was exorbitantly priced. Can't public Laundromats be given exemptions?   
   These are my concerns. They are things that you should be thinking about as well. Much of what I've discussed will undoubtedly anger some in the environmental movements. But like many other things in life (including higher taxes) higher water rates can negatively impact the poor and the sick more than any other groups.

 

 

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