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Claremont looks to neighbor as potential water system operator

The Claremont City Council took another step toward water system acquisition on Tuesday night, approving a Memorandum of Understanding between the cities of Claremont and La Verne as the City of Trees looks to its neighbor as a potential water system operator. The council voted 4-0, Councilmember Corey Calaycay recusing himself from the discussion because he is a customer of the La Verne Water Department.

The agreement begins the next step in the acquisition process—the preparation of a water system operational study to evaluate whether the La Verne Water Department is a viable candidate for operating the Claremont system. While the MOU forbids Claremont officials from using the study to negotiate with other water system operators, it does not commit Claremont to La Verne.

“This is not a contract for operation,” City Manager Tony Ramos emphasized. “This is approval for me to go and do some more exploratory details.”

At a town hall meeting held last November, Claremont officials indicated the city did not intend to operate its own water system or expand any city departments to do so. Late last month, city officials confirmed this by releasing a Draft Environmental Impact Report for the potential purchase of the city’s water system, indicating the possibility of La Verne assuming responsibility for Claremont’s water system should it be obtained from Golden State Water.

The environmental report says the city’s acquisition team notes it is still reviewing “the possibility of other local public water suppliers who may be interested and able to serve as the operator of the Claremont system.” As stated in the EIR, these prospects include the city of Upland, Pomona, the Monte Vista Water District or even another private third party operator.

La Verne—with an estimated 31,000 residents as compared to Claremont’s 35,000—has operated a private system for nearly a century. La Verne currently has eight municipal wells, with water service spanning approximately 6,100 acres in and around the city borders, according to information provided by the city. 

Claremont resident Freeman Allen, a longtime proponent of Claremont turning to its neighbors for help with the water system, was pleased to see the city finally moving forward toward a potential contract.

“We met with the people of La Verne about 10 years ago and we were really impressed that over the course of that century [of ownership] how well they had maintained the system, how they had worked for the public interest and thought about water reservoirs being prepared for the future,” Mr. Allen said. “Every indication we’ve had since then is that they operate a very great system.”

Another resident, Jim Belna, who has previously voiced his descent with the city’s potential water system acquisition, remained skeptical.

“I’m not aware of any other city in California which has its municipal water utility operated under contract with a neighboring city,” Mr. Belna said. “We have no road map to follow and any mistakes that we make are likely to be very costly.”

Golden State executives agree, contending the city “has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote an acquisition, without any work to see if they can operate the system.”

“The MOU is carefully crafted so that residents will not have access to actual analysis, only a draft summary. Why aren’t they doing a request for proposal to determine who could best provide water service to Claremont residents?” questioned Julie Hooper, a company spokesperson. “There’s no transparency or accountability in a pre-determined sole source approach.”

While giving thought to Mr. Belna’s statements, council and staff maintain they have no plans to rush into a contract with La Verne. This is just part of the process to continue the momentum forward, Mr. Ramos insisted.

“When we have done the rest of our due diligence and have looked at all of our options available, then we will bring forward a contract,” he said.

The public will be invited to voice its opinion on a potential operator for Claremont’s water system at a council meeting to be held on Tuesday, March 25 at Taylor Hall, 1775 N. Indian Hill Blvd.

Golden State talks drought, WRAM charges

Water, and lack thereof, was at the forefront of discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting. Before discussion of the water acquisition, Ben Lewis, foothill district manager for Golden State Water Company, made an appearance to address how the water company is navigating California’s drought conditions.

Last month, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in the state. Since that time, local municipalities have taken various measures to encourage residents to cut back on water consumption. Just last week Claremont’s neighboring city of La Verne adopted a series of measure to encourage its residents to conserve, including a “cash for grass” lawn removal program

The Claremont council has not yet publicly addressed taking further measures concerning the drought, but Mr. Lewis did state the water company had a plan in place for its utility users should the drought situation become even more dire. Toby Moore, Golden State’s water resources manager and chief hydrogeologist, asserts the situation has already reached that point. 2013 was the driest year on record, with only seven inches of rain statewide. Typically the statewide average is near 20 inches in a year, according to Mr. Moore, who believes 2014 levels could be worse. 

Should drought conditions persist, Mr. Lewis says Golden State may enact a “schedule 14.1” Staged Mandatory Water Conservation and Rationing tariff. At worst, this could include banning outside water usage.

As the water company urges locals to conserve, council members questioned Golden State’s WRAM charge. The Water Revenue Adjustment Mechanism (WRAM) and Modified Cost Balancing Account (MCBA) charge was created in 2009 as a means of making sure the company had enough money from its ratepayers to continue business. With state legislation mandating water companies to cut back their customers’ water usage, Golden State Water officials say they needed to find a way to recover any potential losses.

Mayor Opanyi Nasiali questioned Mr. Lewis as to whether the water company would consider waiving WRAM charges during the drought period to encourage conservation efforts. While he said he would bring the question up to water company executives for discussion, Mr. Lewis defended the necessity of WRAM charges to continue water system operation.

“The costs are the costs,” he said.

Unhappy with the response, council members directed city staff to draft a letter of complaint against the WRAM charges to the state and the California Public Utilities Commission. City Manager Tony Ramos assured those letters are already being constructed.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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