Sacramento, where water hogs like Nestlé profit and residents pay fines.
Also: on Council member-elect Rick Jennings’ unique conflict of interest
The editorialists at SN&R last week weighed in with a timely reminder that—in the middle of the driest period in California’s recorded history—we are cheaply selling off Sacramento city water to multinational corporations like Nestlé, which makes absurd profits, while writing tickets to people for watering on the wrong day.
State law actually prohibits cities from charging more for water just because a company makes a profit. Yes, state law can be changed, if you are the Sacramento Kings. But short of that, we can do better than the current perverse system of harsh penalties for ordinary people and enormous giveaways to big companies.
Right now, the city is levying hefty fines—$50, $200, possibly up to $1,000—on residents who water outdoors at the wrong hours or on the wrong days. It’s true, we shouldn’t water during the warmest part of the day. And the city government should stop drenching golf courses and parks during the hot hours, in violation of its own rules.
But let’s say you are traveling, and you miss your Sunday watering day. Give your thirsty plants a spritz on Monday, and suddenly, you’re a scofflaw, even if you’ve taken significant steps to conserve. Water is rationed for your geraniums, but corporate water bottlers face no such restrictions.
The city of Pleasanton, profiled in The Sacramento Bee last week for its success in getting residents to cut water use by 25 percent, also uses water rationing. But Pleasanton doesn’t tell residents which two days to water. And according to the Pleasanton water-conservation manager, the city has yet to issue a fine.
And a recent study on water use in the Reno-Sparks area in Nevada found that assigning rigid watering schedules on customers actually leads to greater water waste than watering regimes with more flexibility.
The more important difference is that Sacramento is far behind in using water prices to encourage conservation.
Pleasanton, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities use “tiered” water rates to penalize excessive use and reward those who conserve.
Back in 2011, the city Department of Utilities spokesperson Jessica Hess told SN&R that a conservation-oriented rate structure would not be considered until the majority of residents were on water meters. (Remember that, for decades, the city charter outlawed meters on Sacramento homes.)
Well, it’s 2014 now and the portion of residential customers on water meters passed 50 percent this year. (Sacramento businesses were already on water meters.)
And, it turns out, the city utilities department is currently conducting a “comprehensive rate structure study” including another look at tiered rates. But Hess now warns, “The city is not looking to implement a tiered rate until the vast majority of our customers are on a water meter.”
At the end of the 2016 fiscal year, Hess says only about 60 percent of residential customers will be on meters. “Vast majority” could mean anything. And Bites supposes the city can avoid reforming its rate structure indefinitely, if that’s what it wants to do. It doesn’t make much sense. But it works fine for water hogs like Nestlé.
City council candidate Rick Jennings told SN&R’s Nick Miller a while back that his opponent had tried to unfairly tie him to Mayor Kevin Johnson. His adversaries made him out to be, “the mayor’s bitch,” Jennings complained.
Well, Jennings won anyway. And since he hasn’t been seated yet, it’s really too early to tell about him being the mayor’s bitch. But the relationship between the incoming District 7 council member and the mayor is unusually cozy.
Jennings was CEO of Johnson’s St. HOPE Academy. When he was later elected to the Sacramento city’s school board, he voted to give Sacramento High School to St. HOPE to run as a charter school.
More concerning now is that Jennings’ wife, Cassandra Jennings, works directly for the mayor. She is the liaison between the mayor’s office and Johnson’s network of outside nonprofit organizations.
“My No. 1 reaction is, ’Wow that’s really awkward,’” says Jessica Levinson, an election-law expert and professor at Loyola Law School.
The fact the city pays someone to assist Johnson’s private organizations already raises a few ethical issues. But can anyone reasonably, honestly say that Cassandra Jennings’ job will carry no weight whatsoever when Rick Jennings is asked to vote on the mayor’s agenda?
Of course not. Still, like much of what this council does, it’s dubious but not flat-out illegal. “The question really becomes one of wisdom and appearance,” says Levinson. After all, if the city attorney didn’t see a problem, it must technically be OK, right?
Still, Levinson says, “People are entitled to ask whether their representatives are serving two masters.” They may or may not get answer. Neither Jennings nor the mayor’s office responded by press time.