After a nasty campaign over the proposed merger with San Lorenzo Valley Water District, Lompico’s water crisis gets desparate
When Lois Henry got a recent water bill charging her for only 600 gallons over two months, she knew something was wrong.
Yes, she was getting a good deal, because she uses more than that, despite doing her best to save. But she was seeing a bigger issue: she’s on the Lompico Water Board, and faulty meters are one of many problems plaguing the small district of 516 homes.
The district has only two employees and no manager. Fire hydrants haven’t been checked and purged in years. Insurance companies are canceling policies because of fire danger. Old wooden water tanks are leaking badly. Fire officials say they don’t have enough water to deal with major fires. Billing is done with a hopelessly outdated DOS system, and officials have to check how much water is in the wells and tanks by looking at them, rather than with the computer systems used by up-to-date companies.
Most troubling is that it’s on the state’s list of 17 districts that could run out of water.
The five-member board came up with a solution—to have the district merge with the neighboring 7,300-home San Lorenzo Valley Water District—but the proposal failed by one vote at the end of February, despite support by a majority of residents.
It’s another example of how every vote counts, says County Clerk Gail Pellerin.
Now, no one is quite sure of the future of the district. In only the latest of many heated district meetings last Friday, the board proposed a $600-a-year rate increase to start the process of bringing the antiquated system up to date. But if more than 50 percent of the residents object to the increase, it could be shot down.
“Everything that makes up a water district has a life,” says Lois Henry, who has served on the Board for six years. “My meter is from the late ’70s. It has never been replaced.”
Henry’s biggest worry is that the district will go bankrupt and be taken over by the state, which will take away all local control. Currently, residents pay $175 every two months for water, one of the highest rates in the area.
“The last thing we want to see is for it to go to receivership,” says Henry. “A judge would assign someone to fix the district and they wouldn’t care about the costs.”
One Vote Shy
The board approached the larger San Lorenzo Valley Water District asking for help. SLV came up with a plan to spend $3.2 million for a bond to maintain the troubled system, with interest costs running up the total to $8 million over 30 years.
The water board agreed unanimously on the plan and it went to a vote, where, because it involved spending, it required a two-thirds majority approval. Those who were against the plan claimed they would lose local control of the district, and also said it could be done more cheaply.
After the proposal was defeated by a single vote, ousted water board member Sherwin Gott, who opposed the merger, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel he was “proud” of his community. On the website real-water.info, Gott produced estimates for repair work that would have been half what the district came up with.
However, the outcome angered many residents, who accused the anti-merger side of distortions and outright lies, including unrealistic cost estimates that didn’t include expenses such as a professional manager and adequate staffing.
“I can’t believe they are proud to have won by one vote, because the vast majority of people wanted to merge with San Lorenzo,” says resident (and GT ad rep) John Bland. “The hope is that we are going to get another vote next year.”
For two years, the district has had no manager, and two employees charged with reading meters and doing repairs. It’s not enough, says Henry.
“We need someone on duty 24/7,” she says. “It’s not enough to just have two people. They are getting burned out.”
If a water main broke, it would take five days for Lompico to fix it, says Zayante Fire District Chief John Stipes. SLV would have had it done in two hours. With the workload, they haven’t even checked and flushed fire hydrants regularly.
That’s a big problem, says Stipes. Hydrants should be flushed once a year, he says.
“If they haven’t been checked in two or three years, you might have a busted hydrant and not know it,” says Stipes. “It’s safe to assume that 95 percent of them work, but you don’t want to find out the hard way.”
Stipes, whose department supported the merger, says Lompico doesn’t have the water to support a big fire, although the area has been lucky so far in not having to face one.
“For years, Santa Cruz was called the ‘asbestos county’ by insurance companies because we had so few big fires,” he says. “Now we’ve had a bunch of fires in the past six years and insurance companies are using their own ratings and canceling people.”
He says his department could handle a bigger fire, but that the residents may not have water for five days afterwards.
State Assemblyman Mark Stone was also unhappy about the outcome.
“I’m disappointed that the bond measure failed,” he says. “The next steps for residents of Lompico and water district will take a while to sort out. I remain supportive of finding a solution so the residents of Lompico have access to a long term, sustainable water supply.”
Merger supporters say the opponents are giving out bad or incomplete information. They compare them to Tea Partiers who are against government but offer no alternatives for how to govern. The districts meetings have become something of a circus, with the sheriffs having to be called several times when the opponents refused to give up the floor and were yelling over the other side. There was a threat of violence and a man was pushed by a former board member last March, according to Henry.
A video on the opponents’ website resembles Sen. Jim Inhofe arguing against global warming by holding up a snowball. One shot taken during the rare recent rains claims there is plenty of water and the water tanks don’t need to be replaced. Another has a man saying that when he turns on his faucet there is water today and there will be water tomorrow—logic that others say flies in the face of the current drought.
Opponents of the merger claim that the state will bail them out with loans or that the San Lorenzo district will help them if they run out of water. The SLVWD had been very generous with a pipe supplying water and with repairs, before the failed vote. Since then, it has stepped back.
“If we get in trouble, they think we can depend on this emergency line,” says Bland. “But when we have a surplus, we aren’t willing to give it to them. That doesn’t make sense.”
Added Stipes, the fire chief: “Their big thing was to keep it local, I thought San Lorenzo Valley, being where we live, is local, but not local enough for them. They have delusions of grandeur. How they think they will fix it all without spending money is beyond me.”
PHOTO: The Lompico Water Board proposed a $600-per-year rate increase at last week’s tense meeting. JOHN BLAND