Every well owner gets one, but it’s too early to tell if all
will use their vote to protest the Santa Clara Valley Water
District’s groundwater fees.
Every well owner gets one, but it’s too early to tell if all will use their vote to protest the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s groundwater fees.
If enough well owners in the county protest, the district will void the charges and lose about $70 million – $7.8 million would directly affect South County. The district sent a letter to well owners in the county on Feb. 26 – about 4,000 in the Gilroy/Morgan Hill area – detailing water district meeting times and its no-rate increase to groundwater charges.
While the rates stay the same this fiscal year, for the first time the district will take into account a formal protest via letters sent to well owners. The process derives from a Superior Court judge’s decision in November that determined the district was illegally collecting groundwater fees, a violation of Proposition 218. That proposition mandates that the district sends out notices outlining the process to protest. A majority vote (through the count of the number of filed protests) would mean groundwater charges will be void for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
A successful protest could also mean no more drinking water or farm water from local aquifers, district Water Supply Manager Keith Whitman said last month.
“We would interpret (a majority protest) as, they don’t want to pay the charge that supports all those capital projects,” Whitman said. “We’d have no choice but to respond and reduce those programs accordingly. It would be difficult even maintaining our dams and reservoirs.”
Louise Helland lives on three acres in San Martin and plans to send in her protest, despite not being certain of what good it might do. She is unhappy at how uninformative the letter was when it came to understanding why well owners should send in their letters. Instead, she said, it disguised the facts of the protest with too many mentions of its no-rate increase.
In the second paragraph of the letter to well owners is the district’s declaration of a no-rate increase to groundwater fees for the third consecutive year. Throughout the four-page letter are several mentions of its no-rate increase, highlighted in bold-face type on each page. Yet there is no mention of Proposition 218 that initiated this protest process or any implication of the fact that well owners would not have to pay fees if a majority do protest.
Well owner Bob Cerruti, also of San Martin, has a discrepancy with the language of the letter. In the salutation, it reads “Dear well owner, operator or property owner,” but later addresses “well owners” in the plural. No matter if two people “own” the well, one vote goes to whoever’s name is on the water district’s paperwork.
“We are all owners of this water system,” said Cerruti, whose well belongs to four residents. Yet Cerruti and his neighbor will still receive one vote per well. “This protest’s rules and regulations are totally unfair based on their instructions on this letter.”
Helland said that she doubts any well owners will file protest letters without knowing if it will have an affect on their bills or their properties. “The concern of the well owners is that we have very different interests than the vast population that control the water board,” Helland said.
Groundwater replenished by the water district in South County makes up about two-thirds of water used by all patrons, from farmers to businesses, according to the letter sent out and signed by Beau Goldie, the water district’s CEO. There are 5,500 wells in Santa Clara County and about 4,000 are located in South County.
A successful protest would mean “we wouldn’t have money to import water to the South County to replenish the water basin,” the district’s Senior Project Manager Darin Taylor said.
South County’s at-large board member Cy Mann think that people on both sides of the issue need to open the lines of communication and go back to the “old school, hometown mentality,” of walking the streets and meeting the people to hear their concerns. The same goes for well owners, he said, “it’s every person’s responsibility” to engage on the issues. He also said that many just want to know how their money is being spent.
The water district breaks down how it pays for services with the total at $16,473,000 for the fiscal year. About 50 percent or $7.8 million is spent using groundwater fees, 40 percent uses open space credits and smaller percentages come from property taxes, surface water charges and recycled water charges.
The aquifer in South County is vital to the entire county’s water well-being. From the rain water or from the well owner’s irrigation system, the groundwater is constantly being replenished thanks to the rural well owners south of San Jose. Mann said that refusing to pay fees just contributes to the demise of the land, because without the water district, the wells can’t function alone.
“If people are looking for a way to get out (of paying) there’s their avenue,” Mann said about the protest.
Mann said he’s talked to six different farmers and ranchers in South County who were planning to send in a protest but have since changed their minds.
“Water isn’t free,” Mann said, adding that after he explained to them what those charges were for, the well owners said they understood.
Helland said her neighbors near Gilroy who live on large properties are frustrated at how much they are recharging the groundwater by way of rain or drip water but are still paying based on acreage and their conservation is going unnoticed.
“The interest of the small well owner is very different than the city of Morgan Hill or someone up in San Jose,” Helland said. “I know I’m a net-positive, not a net-negative.”
Mann said anyone who wants to talk about any concerns with the water district should call or e-mail him. He said he will be sure to call them personally and do his best to answer their questions.
“If I don’t have an answer, give me some time, and I’ll find you an answer,” Mann said.
ONE WELL, ONE VOTE
To protest, send the written protest received in the mail in a sealed envelope to:
Santa Clara Valley Water District
ATTN: Clerk of the Board – Groundwater Production Charge Hearing
5750 Almaden Expressway
San Jose, CA 95118
-You must write your name and sign the protest with an original signature, include the addresses or parcel numbers of your properties on the outside of the envelope. The well number is also acceptable.
-No e-mails or faxes will be accepted and letters must be postmarked by April 27, 2010.