Around mid-October of last year, amid mounting pressure to conserve water, residents of a West Ventura neighborhood began to notice a near-daily parade of water tanker trucks taking potable (suitable for drinking) water from fire hydrants.  

While they were being mandated to cut water consumption by 20 percent, the city of Ventura was allowing nonresidential customers to purchase unlimited quantities for construction and other commercial uses. And because of an exemption in the California Public Records Act for utility customers — be they individuals or corporations — their identities were and are protected.

In other words, if you’re wondering who is taking water from hydrants and what they’re doing with it, that information is off-limits — with one exception: if the city determines that the public’s right to know outweighs the customer’s right to privacy. In this case, the city of Ventura decided against the public.

 

Alarmed by what appeared to be, at the very least, a misappropriation of resources, residents took notes, snapped photos and even confronted drivers, but were unable to get much in the way of answers. Some imagined the water was being used for fracking; others thought it was for wastewater management.

Concerned that one of the trucks pulling up to the hydrant on her block might actually be stealing the water, Cathie Curry alerted the city but was told that the activity was permitted and paid for. “So it was all nice and legal, but where does Ventura Water get off selling tens of thousands of gallons of our water during a historic drought?” she said.

After being contacted by concerned residents in late October, VCReporter visited the location of the hydrant that was reportedly seeing the most activity, and followed one of the trucks (which was spilling water the entire way) from Ventura Avenue through downtown, past Ventura High School and up Hall Canyon to a Southern California Gas Company construction site where pipes were visible on the hillside. Onsite officials said the water was being used to mitigate dust, a common practice during construction that’s come under some scrutiny statewide since drought conditions reached critical status. Last May, Bay Area environmentalists were in an uproar when it was discovered that potable water was being sprayed liberally on dirt during the Candlestick Park demolition. Since construction moratoriums are not initiated until the drought reaches stage 4, this is all business as usual. Ventura County is at stage 3.

Temporary water meters, devices that attach to hydrants, allow the city to track nonresidential customers’ usage for billing purposes. Permits for temporary meters are issued for three-month periods. According to Ventura Water Assistant General Manager Joe McDermott, temporary water meter customers were charged $3.09 per hundred cubic feet (HCF) during the time in question and $3.61 per HCF after September, when water rate increases went into effect. They were also subject to a handful of fees totaling around $350 plus $2 per day. The typical residential customer was charged between $2.40 and $8.95 per HCF, depending on their water needs.  

But with multiple trucks owned by various businesses coming and going from the hydrant and others nearby, was all that water being used exclusively by Southern California Gas?  Some residents saw trucks transport the water to a construction yard next to De Anza Middle School, where it was transferred into blue storage tanks called FRACs. McDermott told VCReporter that only one customer at a time is allowed to use an assigned meter during a permitted period, but due to the previously mentioned utility customer exemption in the Public Records Act (which also prevented our public records requests from being fulfilled), he would not confirm that Southern California Gas had access, exclusive or otherwise, to the hydrant during that time. Without the city’s cooperation or following every single truck to its destination, there is no way to know who else, if anyone, has been taking the water and what it’s being used for.

Ventura residents are not the first to come up dry when seeking information about nonresidential water use during this historic drought. When reporters in the Coachella Valley suspected certain users of gobbling up local groundwater, their records requests were denied. The First Amendment Coalition stepped in but was unsuccessful as the Superior Court decided in favor of the denial.

Last year Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-29th District (parts of Central California), authored AB 1520 to eliminate the nonresidential utility customer privacy exemption. Though the bill has predictably faced significant opposition from municipal utilities and water districts, he is hoping to bring it to committee in June. According to Stone, the original legislation was intended to protect residential customers,   not businesses or entities. Business utility customers claim that information made public about their utility usage, in this case water, would cause undue scrutiny by the public and potentially give competitors unfair advantages. For example, an organization representing breweries claimed that the amount of water that they use in their formulas is effectively a trade secret. “We are not convinced that this is so,” said Stone.

According to the California Water Code, it is not acceptable for potable water to be used for construction or other nonresidential needs if there is sufficient recycled water available. While the city of Ventura does have a facility that recycles 8 million gallons of wastewater per day, much of it goes to nearby golf courses, parks and similar landscape areas as permitted. The remainder is released into the Santa Clara River Estuary after flowing through a series of wildlife ponds. In response to the drought, the city recently asked for access to the reclaimed water for additional concerns — construction dust control (requested specifically by AERA Energy LLC, an oil and gas production facility), Transportation Department needs and a variety of other commercial and residential purposes — pending approval by the state. Once approved, an additional 1.3 million gallons will become available at the plant for residents and commercial interests. This could happen as soon as April. McDermott said time will tell how much potable water is saved, based on how receptive residents are to using the reclaimed water. The public and all affected agencies are invited to review the proposal and explain their concerns via email or postal mail no later than 5 p.m. on Jan. 25. To review the proposal and send comments, visit www.cityofventura.net/water/wastewater.

Even as municipalities continue adjusting policies to respond to drought conditions, and despite the relief that this year’s El Niño cycle might bring to the state, Stone says that it is still important for the public to have access to information regarding nonresidential usage. “Under these conditions, it is certainly in the public’s interest to know who the largest water users are and whether or not local authorities are taking appropriate steps to encourage conservation among the largest users, whether that is through penalties or education,” he said. If the bill passes, all municipalities, including the city of Ventura, will be obligated to fulfill public records requests concerning nonresidential water customers.