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The following commentary, which was published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on January 23, is a response to a January 2 commentary published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel by Don Bacon, a Montara resident who questioned Felton's drive to buy back its water system from Cal-Am. Cal-Am subsequently mailed copies of Bacon's piece to all its Felton ratepayers. We also corrected errors in it in this response.

Scott Boyd is president of the Montara Water & Sanitary District. This article is reprinted with the permission of the author.

FELTON: OWN YOUR WATER
On July 4, 2004, the Montara/Moss Beach community gathered at the Point Montara lighthouse to celebrate a new kind of independence - independence from a neverending series of rate increases; independence from endless pitched battles at the state Public Utilities Commission; independence from remote profiteers who ignored our community's water needs as they carted away our money.

You see, one year earlier our community struck the deal to take wonership of the system that provides one of our vital resources - water.

In our community, which is largely urban-density, all new homes over the past few years have been built on wells, even homes right next door to one another. Our water system hit its production limit years ago and has been under moratorium ever since. There is barely enough water for the people who are on the system.

Dry summers are especially worrisome because of our limited storage for fire prevention.

Elected officials spent years trying to work with the water monopoly. After all, our public agency had access to low-coast loans that we could have used to build the water storage tanks and new wells we so desperately needed at a much lower cost to the community. The Public Utilities Commission thought it was a great idea and ordered the corporation to work with us to improve the system at a lower cost to the rate payers. The corporation paid lip service but resisted all efforts.

As it became more clear that the PUC could not improve our desperate situation, we became more educated about its rate-setting process. We started sharing what we had learned with our community. We looked at the financial impacts of Cal-Am's master plan, the rate increase requests it had already mentioned, and started putting the numbers into a spreadsheet.

The conclusion was clear - it wouldn't take long for our rates to go from "highest in California" to "astronomically higher," and there was a crossover point just a few years out where it would be cheaper to just buy the system outright if we did it now.

We took our case to the community and asked, "Are we willing to spend what it takes to get free of this endless cycle of rate increases and system neglect?" the community overwhelmingly voted (more than 81 percent) to make the investment.

What do members of the community think about all this now?

Mike Gaynes of Moss Beach wrote in the local paper just last week that the price we're paying is "A superb investment in protecting our property values, which would be devastated by the collapse of a water system that had been neglected for decades by corporate ownership."

He went on to address Cal-Am directly, "We finally took our water system away from you, and we're glad we did. It'll take years, millions and some raised voices to fix the damage you did, but we'll get it done."

Mike is right - it will take years and millions of dollars. Not as many dollars as suggested by a writer here recently, mind you. To set the record straight, our tax rate this year is $169/$100,000 (of assessed value, not market value), and the life of our bond is a fixed 25 years. His numbers (almost twice as high) don't bear up under inspection.

No one is happy about the expense, but my neighbors consistently tell me, "We had to do something!"

In the year-and-a-half since we took charge, we can finally attend to local needs. We have drilled wells, replaced vital delivery lines, rehabilitated and returned to service failed wells, started low-flow rebates, upgraded emergency generators, taken decisive steps to improve employee retention and we're well under way in replacing decrepit lines in the streets, renovating long-forgotten pressure-relief valves, adding storage tanks and dealing with other surprises Cal-Am left behind.

Independence isn't easy, nor is it inexpensive, but our community needed and wanted local control of water. And we'll be celebrating the joys and responsibilities of independence again come July 4.

- Scott Boyd, president of the Montara Water & Sanitary District