Water torture

Why is the city of Sacramento trying to hide the water-meter records of Nestlé and other big industrial water users?

Is it because the city Department of Utilities finds it too embarrassing, or just too inconvenient, to comply with California public-records law?

With summer approaching, SN&R wanted to take a look at the meter records for the biggest water users in town. Water is a limited resource, and we want to know if anyone—particularly big commercial operations and government institutions—is using more than their share.

The request is hardly unprecedented.

A couple of years back, The Sacramento Bee did its own investigation of water usage. It found that the city’s water data was a mess, and that city government is one of the biggest water wasters around.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when SN&R asked for the public records needed to follow up, we were told by Department of Utilities spokeswoman Jessica Hess, “We don’t give that information out anymore.”

Bites spent several days trying to get answers about why the policy had changed, but never got any closer than Hess saying that the California Public Records Act “doesn’t require us” to disclose meter records.

Which is, of course, exactly the opposite of what the Public Records Act is all about. In fact, the law places the burden on government to give a good reason for not disclosing information. It does not give government an excuse to petulantly fold its arms and stick out its tongue and say, “Make me.”

It appears that the city is relying on a small section of the public-records law having to do with utility information (California Government Code 6254.16, geeks), which says that with some important exceptions, “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require the disclosure of the name, credit history, utility usage data, home address, or telephone number of utility customers of local agencies.”

“This is all out of a concern for personal privacy,” said Terry Francke, with public-information watchdog group Californians Aware. He says the law is clearly written to protect individual consumers from having their personal information fall into the wrong hands, not to help businesses keep their water usage secret.

Assistant City Attorney Matt Ruyak told Bites, “I see what you’re saying,” but said he doesn’t think the law makes any distinction between business customers and residential customers. “I guess one could argue what the intent of the Legislature is.”

Bites is certain the intent of the Legislature is to provide legitimate protections for personal privacy, not to provide cover for a government agency that just doesn’t feel like providing information—or worse, feels like hiding information.

The kicker is in the last paragraph of 6254.16, where it says the government “shall” provide the records when “the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.”

What is the public interest in keeping the meter records of Sacramento’s commercial water hogs a secret? Nada.

On the other hand, Sacramento citizens live with strict outdoor watering rules and rising utility rates—while the city routinely drenches its golf courses and other property when it pleases. The city caters to big water bottlers like Nestlé, who make enormous profits off our water supply with no environmental review and no requirement that they pay commercial rates—as they must in other California cities.

State and federal law give us the right to know, in painstaking detail, exactly how much pollution a factory is putting into the air. How can the city justify secrecy when it comes to water?

It just doesn’t wash.