Water in the City of Trees and PhDs: Amid Rising Rates, City Engulfed in Tense Water Dispute

The simplicity of retrieving water by turning on a faucet or starting a shower makes it all too easy to ignore the vast mechanical apparatus that snakes beneath the ground and feeds our insatiable water needs. 

In Claremont, the Golden State Water Company (GSWC) has the daunting task of operating this system for the city’s 35,000 residents. Unbeknownst to most students at the 5Cs, however, Claremont has erupted in a bitter political fight over ownership of the city’s water system. In the upcoming Nov. 4 election, voters will have the opportunity to support or oppose local control of the system.

Increased uproar among local residents over high water rates led Claremont City Hall to add Measure W to next month’s ballot, which would permit the city to purchase the system from GSWC through eminent domain proceedings. If a majority of voters vote “Yes” on the measure, Claremont will initiate the process of acquiring the water system from Golden State Water Company so long as the city does not exceed its set $135 million borrowing limit. 

Acquiring the water system from GSWC is attractive to many residents, even considering the multimillion dollar price tag that Claremont would need to pay GSWC. By all accounts, water rates in Claremont are high—some residents in Claremont pay double the rates of neighboring La Verne, where the water system is publicly operated. Brian Bowcock, a director for the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, noted that compared to Claremont, La Verne relies much more on imported water—more expensive than locally sourced water—but still sees lower rates. 

Of particular concern to many residents is the conservation impact of Golden State's so-called “Water Revenue Adjustment Mechanism” (WRAM) charge, which slaps on a surcharge to the water bills of those who use less water than the company was expecting.

“Claremont has a lot of environmentalists that are really cutting back on the water, and then they are hit with a WRAM charge because the water agency still has to make a profit,” Bowcock said. “I know some senior citizens that are just saying that ‘rather than pay the WRAM charge, I’d rather water my yard and at least keep it green.’ That’s the reverse of any type of conservation I’ve heard of.”

Golden State, however, maintains that the WRAM charge encourages company-wide conservation. By freeing the company of financial concerns resulting from decreased water use, Golden State claims that the WRAM charge allows the corporation to implement larger water conservation projects.

“Reduced water consumption is a significant challenge that all water providers, public or private, are facing with the drought situation,” said Julie Hooper, a spokesperson for GWSC. “You’ll find that a lot of water providers are having to increase their rates in order to cover the long-term fixed costs, regardless of how much of a commodity is actually sold.” 

Even amid the uproar over rising rates and the WRAM charge, a growing coalition in Claremont hopes to keep control of the water system in private hands. GSWC has commissioned a series of reports by Rodney Smith, a Claremont business-owner and former resident, that demonstrate the financial woes that would greet the city upon acquisition of the water system. Smith, a former CMC economics professor, is the President at Stratecon, Inc., an economic consulting firm specializing in water. 

According to Smith’s report—which has been synthesized and mass-mailed to Claremont residents—city procurement of the water system would mean “higher water rates for Claremont residents are a virtual certainty for many years to come.” 

No on Measure W, an organization advocating against public acquisition, has stepped up its efforts in anticipation of the election. Documents received by TSL indicate that the organization has received $288,300 directly from Golden State Water Company since the start of August.  

Meanwhile, grassroots organizing in support of government control of the water system has been spearheaded by Claremont Friends of Local use Of Water (FLOW). Members of FLOW said that their campaign has garnered wide-ranging support from a diverse array of Claremont residents.

“Our campaign is strictly locally funded,” said Helaine Goldwater, chair of FLOW. “We’ve gotten something like $24,000 just from the people that live in Claremont. We have no business with support from outside organizations, it’s strictly Claremont-funded.”

Advocates for and against Measure W seem to offer two irreconcilable predictions for how Measure W will impact Claremont’s future water rates. Ultimately, the judge presiding over potential eminent domain proceedings would have the final word on what the City of Claremont would pay GSWC, but an independent appraisal funded by the city has valued the system at just over $55 million. For members of FLOW, $55 million is a relative bargain for the comfort of lower rates and local control.

“It’s economically feasible, in my view, to take over the system,” said Freeman Allen, a FLOW organizer and professor emeritus of Pomona's chemistry department. "Conceivably it could be without any increase in any rates at all. It could be actually a decrease in rates.” 

If Claremont maintained its current water rates, the city has estimated that the revenues could finance up to $80 million in acquisition fees. 

Allen said that for him, the issue of local control is more important than that of cost. If water is important now, it will be crucial in the future, when the current drought may be the new norm—and when small towns may see the impact of increasing globalization.

“If we have a company like GSWC that has a monopoly, there’s a good chance that the water would be taken over by an international corporation," Allen said. "We would essentially be out of the picture as to controlling our own water future.”

Opponents of Measure W, on the other hand, are intimidated by the financial burden that could envelope Claremont. For Pomona politics professor Heather Williams—who plans to vote against the measure—the uncertainties involved with the acquisition far outweigh the benefits accrued in the process. 

“I have nothing but deep respect for FLOW,” Williams said. “They are doing this for very noble reasons. It’s just that we do different things with the uncertainties.”

Although the city anticipates paying around $55 million to purchase the water system, there’s a possibility that a judge would settle on a much higher price. For its part, GSWC values the system at a staggering $222 million, a figure that includes the replacement cost of all the machinery.

“We believe that the value of the water system will result in significant rate increase for Claremont residents,” said Benjamin Lewis Jr., the General Manager of GSWC’s Foothill District. “Expert analysis has determined that under Measure W, resident will pay an addition $101.42 per month (beyond their current water bill) for 30 years.”

Control over Claremont’s water system is at a vital crossroads that could determine the price of water for generations to come. For some, the dream of a publicly owned system is finally within reach.

"My husband and I have firmly believed in buying the water company for 40 years—we’ve lived in Claremont for 45 years," Goldwater said. For now, all Goldwater and Claremont FLOW can do is wait and campaign. The group has mobilized to canvass Claremont door-to-door, and members are also holding individual meetings with interested residents.

"If Measure W fails, this issue will go away for decades because no one else will want to tackle it," Goldwater said. 

But even if the proposition does pass Nov. 4, there are indications that the legal process could be very prolonged.

“Measure W is just the start,” Williams said. “This could drag on for 4 to 5 years—and there’s nothing like a water case in California to have ongoing litigation.”

Caroline Bowman contributed reporting.

Update: This article incorrectly stated that Rodney Smith is a Claremont resident and the Senior Vice President of Stratecon, Inc. It has been updated to correct those errors.