With the final votes tallied, 55 percent of residents voting on June 3rd defeated Measure O, which sought a government condemnation and takeover of California American Water’s (CAW) Monterey Peninsula water system. Cited as the most contentious item on the June ballot, the initiative would have required the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to adopt a policy that all water systems in its boundaries be government owned. The District also would have been required to conduct a feasibility study and develop an acquisition plan at a cost to residents of between $400,000 and $600,000.
CAW has maintained for years that the system is not for sale and it would oppose a government-sponsored eminent domain proceeding to condemn the property and take it through a forced sale. CAW implemented an aggressive local grassroots coalition-building and media campaign to thwart the passage of Measure O, the third unsuccessful attempt at a government takeover in less than a decade. The multi-faceted campaign was bolstered by the efforts of elected and appointed officials, neighboring customers who are living with the consequences of a government takeover, students, business leaders and others.
The campaign culminated with significant opposition to the takeover, including all six mayors on the Peninsula’s regional water authority (Monterey, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Carmel, Del Rey Oaks and Sand City), U.S. Congressman Sam Farr, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, 11 of the county’s 12 mayors and several local businesses and Carmel River environmental protection organizations. As the pre-election educational effort on the downside risks proceeded, polls indicated initial support for Measure O had eroded to a two- to three-point edge for the opponents by Election Day.
“No on O” supporters contended the initiative would have jeopardized CAW’s proposed water projects for the region, which includes a desalination plant, water storage facilities and recycled water infrastructure. The water project is designed to enable CAW to comply with a State Water Board deadline requiring CAW to significantly decrease its reliance on the Carmel River and secure a sustainable future water supply for its customers.
In an article in The Carmel Pine Cone, “No on O” spokesman Carlos Ramos said, “The voters have spoken, and Measure O’s failure is a huge step forward in securing an alternative water project for the Peninsula. We feel comfortable that Measure O’s defeat shows the state and the community that we have something; we have a water plan. Now, let’s keep moving forward so we can get that water solution under way.”
Ron Cohen, managing director of PublicWaterNow.org, the “Yes on Measure O” campaign, warned of another possible takeover effort in The Carmel Pine Cone article, and the group vowed on Facebook to “vote out” the six Peninsula mayors, the four Monterey County Supervisors and Congressman Sam Farr. However, Cohen also conceded that he and other Measure O backers would lend their support to CAW’s proposed desalination plant.
Voters in favor of Measure O faulted CAW for rising water rates and maintained that a government takeover would keep costs in check. However, the “No on O” supporters pointed to the community of Felton, which passed a similar measure in 2005, moved forward with a condemnation proceeding and, through the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD), purchased CAW’s water system for $11 million in 2008.
Like CAW, SLVWD has encountered the formidable financial realities of operating a drinking water system, and like most water utilities and agencies in the state, has been compelled to increase rates significantly. This result was highlighted in a warning from a Felton resident in a television commercial that ran extensively on local television in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Beth Hollenbeck, a teacher in Felton who was featured in the television commercial, issued this warning to Monterey Peninsula voters in a May 2014 article in The Salinas Californian, “In 2005, we voted for a public takeover of the water system just like what you are considering with Measure O. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have voted for it. Rates are up 60 percent, and I’m paying $13,980 more in property tax to pay off buying out the water company.”
After the vote, The Carmel Pine Cone published an article where “Ramos urged Monterey Peninsula voters on both sides of the issue to come together in support of the mayors’ efforts in order to ‘move forward.’”