Friday, February 20, 2009

Water District Should Go With The Flow

The electoral process has indeed brought many people the Audacity of Hope that our new president has opened for us. This hope is not just about electing a president. The hope lies in giving us the power to be the communities that we want to be, rather than what's forced upon us by "The Powers That Be." It's true: "All politics is local." So we should put our primary political power into local politics, and reduce the major distraction of "What can our country do for me?" Even our proud mayors flew back to DC with our tin cups in hands.

A major local political opportunity is opening right now in Silicon Valley. And that is how we use democracy to manage our water and protect the watersheds that carry our water to us and the environment. The Water District Board is asking Assemblyman Joe Coto to carry a bill through the State legislature to amend the District Act as it pertains to (s)electing the Board of Directors as representatives of our community.

The Water District Act is the enabling legislation that is created in Sacramento to be applied to how this agency is run here in Santa Clara County, from Palo Alto and Milpitas, throughout San Jose and south to Gilroy and the Pajaro River. Its drainage flows to two important regional watersheds, Monterey Bay and the San Francisco Estuary. It serves sixteen land use agencies and offers services as a water wholesaler and watershed stewardship, and augments the community's earth science education component to both students and adults through their outreach programs.

Water is essential to life and the quantity and chemistry of this element is so directly related to the quality of each of our lives and the community at large. Ironically, it has been that term "at large" that has been applied historically to enable the Dilution of Democracy for the past forty years here in the Valley of St.Claire and her Silicon descendants. In 1968, a newly formed organization was created in Sacramento in order to merge the competing public agencies, all trying to manage the waters of the County. Those were in fact the County government and the four, yes four, water conservation Districts that had been created to capture local winter storm runoff and recharge the water during the rest of the year into the groundwater basins or deliver it in pipes or canals.

There is an adage that you should never watch law or sausage being made, but we historically have been willing to put up with the usually compromised results from either process. But not anymore! People are much more scrutinizing of what they eat and, maybe more importantly, how their (s)elected representatives are behaving, especially when it comes to spending our money, and measuring more closely what value we receive for that money. This blog and all our other methods of connectedness are the new tools we bring to the democratic process so we can finally become a real democracy.

So I hope to begin, using my Blessed Unrest, a real dialogue within Silicon Valley to create a new water District Board of Directors that reflect today's needs and expectations for this 21st Century, very interconnected community.

The Board, first of all, should represent the very nature of the flow of water, and should be organized by watershed. This is not a new idea for the Water District. When I was first elected to the Board in 1972, there where five separate taxing zones in place, representing the major watersheds in the county: East(Coyote Creek), Central (Guadalupe/Los Gatos), North Central (Stevens Creek/Permanente) Northwest (Baron, San Francisquito) and South (Uvas/Llagas/Pajaro).

In order to keep the equal representation in place, each of these would have to again become a taxing entity for which watershed activities could be assessed per watershed and not subsidized by other zones with a "budget surplus."

The water supply function of the Santa Clara Valley Water District is operated as an enterprise, basically run as a business for the benefit of the entire county. Other water supply wholesalers also operate within the county borders, namely San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and four regional water recycling programs operated within Santa Clara County. This makes for a very complex approach for getting water to people, through their many water retailers, comprised of both municipal and private/investor-owned utilities.

Since the watersheds probably do not have equal populations, I propose that each watershed have weighted voting when they meet to manage the Water Utility Enterprise as the "Water (supply) Board."
Another benefit is that watershed boundaries cannot be gerrymandered. They are created by nature and will remain the same, regardless of changes in land use and population.

As the Water Utility Enterprise is run as a business, each watershed council represents a resident-shareholder, so each council would have a vote in proportion to its population, using the well known and accepted corporate model. This should take care of the equal representation requirement.

As these Watershed Council members come together as Water "Supply" Board, still wearing their watershed hats, if you will, they will be more apt to balance the needs of both the human inhabitants AND the in stream/riparian needs within the community. This is somewhat parallel concept to the city councils acting separately as the Redevelopment Boards while still being an elected council member.

Watershed Councils should be (s)elected in open, non-partisan, consolidated primary elections with runoffs in the next general election. Appointments to fill vacancies should be required to gather at least 10% of the registered-voters support in their electoral Districts and should do so using electronic communications appropriate to the current community standards, sort of like getting fans on Facebook, for example.

As the District is an essential service provider to the cities and the County government, these organizations should have a stronger voice in advising the Water District. A water commission currently exists that includes an elected members of each city, the County BOS and a Water Board member. This group should meet at least quarterly, and more often under drought or flood emergencies, and should be required to read and formally comment on the Water District budget before the Board takes final action to approve its annual or two-year budget.

Other advisory committees should be encouraged by the State enabling legislation but the micro-managing should stop there. Agricultural subsidies, if allowed, should go toward ALL water applied for irrigation of a food crop, not just for commercial food and fiber. Water subsidies for food crop irrigation should be passed on through retailers to consumers. Just as individual home water banks were created during the '86-'91 drought, home/food water banks can be similarly created and monitored through efficient and modern electronic means and be an essential tool for emergency drought management, during a state- or locally-declared emergency.

For the past forty years, the District board of directors has had five elected directors and two directors appointed by the Board of Supervisors, coupled with a budget approval by the BOS, after the District Board review and adoption. This system had a severely distracted Board of Supervisors giving approval to a budget they hardly ever glanced at, let alone vetted for policy compliance and economic or environmental prudence. The Dilution of Democracy, of which I speak, occurred through the appointment of a supervisor's "friend" to either of the two at large seats on the Water Board. These appointments were made by alternating north /south appointments between the members of the board of supervisors. The heavy politicking this brought forth was never pretty to watch or stomach. Last year the County finally relinquished this hold on the Water District and the District Act was amended in Sacramento to remove the two appointments and eliminate the budget approval requirement.

It is as these two vestiges of old political inertia are to end on Dec 31, 2010, that the District Board has cleverly disguised their desire to keep the number of Board members (s)elected to seven, using new yet-to-be-gerrymandered districts of equal number of eligible voters. I believe we deserve and can create a political body that has more practicality than simply preserving the number seven for the available seats on the board of directors. I am hoping that, using the communication tools we have available, we can construct a body that works as well as nature, as our politics reflects both the force and delicacy of nature and the human spirit.

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