Whose water is it? (October 4, 2015)

Among the war of words that the Town of Apple Valley (TOAV) has been waging against Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company (AVRWC) is a collection of terms designed to mislead the public into supporting the hostile takeover of AVRWC by TOAV by making it seem as if water should be free. Demagogues use this technique because it allows them to seem to be saying exactly what the public wants to hear, while in fact they are saying nothing of the sort. It is up to the listener to parse what is being said and what is being left to the listener’s imagination. Here are a few examples where the TOAV has employed this deceptive language:

TOAV community ownership of our water
TOAV propaganda from April 2015
Reference Source
community assets Frank Robinson, Daily Press (March 8, 2015)
community owned avh2ours.com/2015/04/the-benefits-of-community-owned-water/ (April 10, 2015)
community ownership avh2ours.com/2015/04/the-benefits-of-community-owned-water/ (April 26, 2015)
your water TOAV Special Newsletter (June 4, 2015)
public asset Art Bishop, Daily Press (June 7, 2015)
community asset Art Bishop, Daily Press (June 7, 2015)
community ownership Art Bishop, Daily Press (June 7, 2015)
community ownership Art Bishop radio ad (June 17, 2015)
community ownership Barb Stanton radio ad (June 2015)
community ownership Barb Stanton radio ad (June 2015)
public asset Barb Stanton radio ad (June 2015)
community ownership Barb Stanton radio ad (June 2015)
community ownership Barb Stanton radio ad (June 2015)
public asset Frank Robinson, Daily Press (June 26, 2015)
community ownership Art Bishop, Daily Press (July 16, 2015)
public asset Barb Stanton, Daily Press (July 24, 2015)
public ownership State of the Town (August 19, 2015)
community ownership State of the Town (August 19, 2015)
community ownership H2Ours ad in Daily Press (August 30, 2015, etc.)
community ownership H2Ours ad in Daily Press (September 6, 2015, etc.)
your water H2Ours ad in Senior News (October 2015)
community ownership H2Ours ad in Senior News (October 2015)

Even the ours in the domain name AVH2Ours.com that is owned by the TOAV promulgates this impression.

There are several aspects to this misrepresentation. Let’s look at five of them.

Community assets

First, there are such things as community assets, such as land or buildings owned by a community, but still they must be purchased. Therefore, they are not ours (belonging to the community) unless and until they are bought and paid for.

Public good

Second, these terms seem design to evoke the concept of water as a public good. A public good can be defined as, A product that one individual can consume without reducing its availability to another individual and from which no one is excluded (Source: Investopedia). Clearly, this is not the case here in the high desert, as there is a limited amount of water, such that use of water is a zero-sum game — for one person to benefit means another person must lose. Compare this to air, which can accurately be described as a public good.

Free water and water rights

Third, we’ve established that water may be a community asset, as long as the community pays for it. This is long way from the implied free nature of water that the TOAV would have you accept as the basis for its arguments.

But what if the water were somehow ours already, as the TOAV would have us believe? What if our water were magically free? Free water means everyone has a right to it in the minds of most persons. Far from solving our problems, this would in fact give rise to a host of difficult questions, as illustrated by centuries of struggles over water rights.

  • Does each individual have the same rights regarding water as everyone else?
  • Can there be any limit on anyone’s exercise of his water rights? How?
  • What rights to businesses have to water, if any?
  • Does a person who just moved into the area have the same water rights as someone who has been here for decades?
  • Does a person who currently lives here but is planning on moving next month have the same water rights as someone who plans to stay?
  • Does a person who wastes water have the same water rights as someone who conserves it?
  • If Apple Valley decided to use all the water it could, including that in the Mojave River, how would that effect surrounding communities?
  • If an upstream community in our area decided to use all the water it could, how would that effect Apple Valley?
  • Does a person with a 35-foot deep well have the same water rights as a person with a 635-foot deep well?
  • What water rights would a person have if his well were 35 feet deep, but the water table was 100 feet deep?
  • If the community used all the available water, and a business bought additional water to restore water service, who would have the right to that water?
  • If water quality varied from pure to poisonous in various sections of the town, would persons in areas of bad water have rights to pure water?
  • Do persons in areas of town where drilling a well is forbidden by a CC&R agreement have the same water rights as everyone else? If not, is the CC&R agreement valid? If so, how do they exercise those rights?

The complexity of the issues raised by these and other questions surrounding water access and water use hints at why water utilities are set up the way they are.

In the case of most of Apple Valley, water is served by AVRWC. AVRWC’s water rights were adjudicated in court, and are controlled by the Mojave Water Agency (MWA). But here in the high desert, water doesn’t just flow from the source to your faucet, it lies below the surface in the aquifer, the depth and quality of which varies. To get that water from the aquifer to your tap requires millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, which first must be purchased, then installed, and then maintained. This enormously costly undertaking creates fixed costs for running our water utility, the expenses for which comprise more than 90 percent of the typical water bill.

Because the amount of water in the aquifer is limited — first by nature, and second by the amount of that water AVRWC is allowed by MWA to draw from the aquifer — any overdraft by AVRWC must be matched by a corresponding purchase of water from MWA.

Transferring ownership

Fourth, TOAV’s use of deceptive language implies that because the water is already ours, all we have to do is take it from those evil people at AVRWC. But that’s not the reality, because AVRWC has invested millions of dollars over almost seven decades to ensure our access to high-quality water. To convert these privately-owned assets (infrastructure plus water rights) to community assets (AKA government-owned assets) requires millions in legal fees because AVRWC is not for sale, which means it must be condemned through the process of eminent domain, at which time a court will determine how much the TOAV must pay to purchase AVRWC. As a point of reference, in 2011, the Blue Ribbon Water Committee looked into the possibility of the TOAV purchasing AVRWC, and recommended against it, in part because of the fear that the court-ordered purchase price could be $200 million. That was four years ago, and a lot has happened since then. Not only has AVRWC made a lot of additional investments into the water system, but we’ve had four years of inflation to add to that figure. Obviously, the TOAV doesn’t have that kind of money sitting around, so it would have to borrow it at interest, meaning that until the note was paid off (if ever), the water system still wouldn’t be a community asset, but rather a super-massive community liability.

Who will mind the store?

Because of all the infrastructure and work involved to get water from the source to where we need it, it is important to know who is going to be doing the work and managing the infrastructure should the TOAV seize AVRWC? Unfortunately, the TOAV is vague on this point.

Yet this is a crucially important point. AVRWC has a full team of certified water experts already on the job. Maybe they would go to work for the TOAV after the takeover, despite the TOAV labelling them as greedy and uncaring. If not, where is the TOAV going to find enough qualified persons to run the system? TOAV doesn’t have them currently, and is unlikely to find them by the time the court rules in its favor (assuming it does).

If the TOAV cannot run the system itself, it will have to hire outsiders to run the system. In other words, it will pay $200 million (or more) to prevent outsiders from running our water system, only to turn it right back over to outsiders to run our water system. Keep in mind, any outside firm or agency with the ability properly to run our water system is going to require payment (AKA profit), which is what TOAV is accusing AVRWC of earning.

So, whose water is it?

A strong argument can be made to support the position that those who have been most faithful at maintaining our water system and replenishing the aquifer have the best claim to the water, and that describes AVRWC. As a company, they have been around longer than just about everyone in town. Not only have they provided for those who have been here for years, they are preparing for those who have yet to come. No other person or entity in our area can make that claim. If what’s past is prologue,, Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company has shown its commitment to our area, and in so doing has earned the right to control our water.

Greg Raven is Co-Chair of Apple Valley Citizens for Government Accountability, and is concerned about quality of life issues.