Water tax protest turns into grassroots movement


Busy people are busy people, San Martin resident Sylvia Hamilton
said Friday. That’s why she e-mailed en masse a clarification to


letter sent by the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Busy people are busy people, San Martin resident Sylvia Hamilton said Friday. That’s why she e-mailed en masse a clarification to the “confusing” letter sent by the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Six-hundred South County neighbors are on the e-mail list, rocketing a grassroots effort to make sure every well owner understands their right to protest the groundwater pump tax. If 50.1 percent of South County well owners – or 1,823 residents – protest, the tax will be nullified and the water district would lose roughly $8 million.

“I want to make sure people know what’s going on and make a decision from there with the facts,” said Hamilton, a 34-year San Martin resident.

Gilroy has not decided whether to protest the water charges. City staff is in the process of gathering detailed background information for a report that it planned to present to the city council at its Monday night meeting, City Engineer Rick Smelser said.

The council will then have the opportunity to provide city staff with direction on the matter.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a letter like this from the district,” Smelser said. “It’s new to us. That’s why we’re taking it to the council.”

At a recent San Martin Neighborhood Alliance meeting, members asked if the group’s board, of which Hamilton is the president, could write a letter that better explains the water district’s Feb. 26 letter.

They claim the letter buries how to protest on the last of four pages and disguises the protest information with propaganda on the district’s lack of rate increase. In addition, two residents claimed the district’s letter was purposely deceptive.

Hamilton wrote a simple outline with bullet points describing how a well owner can protest the pump tax – a rate that has not increased since 2007. The e-mail, which also reached people who may not own wells, included an example protest letter and envelope.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District issued a statement about its Feb. 26 letter:

“The purpose of the annual well owner letter is to provide well owners with the recommendation for the next year’s groundwater production charges and to inform well owners of the services funded through groundwater production charges such as infrastructure, imported water and protection of the groundwater basin. Since the district is implementing a protest procedure this year, specific information on how to protest is included in the letter following the information on the recommended charges and services provided.”

The district also included the many ways it says it has been transparent, such as meeting with newspaper editorial boards, holding public meetings throughout the county, posting documents to its Web site and providing phone numbers for questions from residents.

This district’s letter is the first chance for 3,644 South County well owners to protest paying the pump tax; a letter of disagreement must be received by the water district by April 27.

The current charge in South County is $16.50 per acre foot of agricultural use and $275 per acre foot of municipal and industrial use. One acre foot can supply water for two family of five for one year.

In North County, agricultural charges are the same but home and business use increases to $520 per acre foot.

The water district has reported that the district clerk will open and count the protest letters April 27, and if the protest is successful, it will lead to severe reductions or elimination of water utility services, such as purchasing imported water and well inspections.

“Besides locally captured water, the district also uses much of the water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to recharge the underground aquifer,” according to the water district’s Web site, valleywater.org. “Without imported water, local groundwater basins could be depleted, resulting in higher costs to secure other water supplies and to pump water from deeper wells.”

In 1987, the water district charged a $22 per-acre-foot pump tax; now, it’s $275 per acre foot – a 1,150 percent increase, according to water baseline bills kept by San Martin well owner Bob Cerutti. By comparison, PG&E’s rate has gone up 165 percent and land-line phone bills about 25 percent in that same time.

The water district is appealing a case with the Great Oaks Water Co. after a judge ruled in 2009 that the groundwater charges were illegal because they were not voted on by residents.

The City of Morgan Hill owns eight wells and will not send in protest letters, City Manager Ed Tewes said. He said the city council will ask the water district to instead reduce groundwater fees.

The water district provides water supply and flood protection to Santa Clara County’s 1.8 million people. The government agency employs about 750 people and manages an annual budget of $305 million.

Staff writer Jonathan Partridge contributed to this article.

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