by Emily Lau
photography by Gabriella Chikhani
Water is a vital resource. It covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and is around us whether in the form of liquid, solid or gas. Humans can only live about three days without it. Because water is so crucial for survival, the control of water has sparked many a conflict. Such is the case with the city of Claremont, which is in a contested legal battle with Golden State Water Company over which entity should supply water to Claremont. On one hand, Claremont city officials want to partner with La Verne to provide its residents and businesses with water at a cheaper cost. On the other, Golden State Water Company officials say La Verne is unfit as an operator to run Claremont’s water system, claiming La Verne’s water at one time exceeded allowed lead levels, and that their company is best situated to serve Claremont’s residents.
In the 1800s, this water war might be solved with violence. These days, the fight takes place in a court of law. Harsh, “fighting words” have been thrown La Verne’s way by Golden State Water Co. La Verne has refuted these claims, but in the court of law, as in the old West, only one party is going to come out victorious. “Water continues to be an important issue. Water gets into everything. That’s the power of water in this case,” says Al Clark, professor of humanities, who has dedicated more than 40 years to learning and educating people about the importance of water. For two decades, he has worked on his book “Water, Watershed, and Warming,” but says he has only scratched the surface of the deep history of water in Southern California. In his cramped office on the third floor of the Wilson Library, Clark is surrounded by his research and reminders of the importance of water. “Everything – all of these drawers, all of the stuff on the floors – are notes and copies of articles about water,” he says. “It has become one of those things that you can’t seem to finish no matter what.” Clark knows how important water is, and as he watches the battle over water break out in the city he lives in, Claremont, he cannot help but remember the true value of water.
Fighting for Claremont’s water system
Claremont wants to separate from Golden State Water mainly for cost reasons, but local control is also factored in. However, the battle for the Claremont water system is not a new one. Breakaway talks began as early as 2006 when the water company proposed an increase in the region’s water prices, according to the Claremont Courier. Claremont’s water system includes more than 11,000 connections and serves more than 35,000 people in Claremont and the unincorporated northern Claremont areas of Los Angeles County. Golden State Water Company, Claremont’s water provider for more than 80 years, is a for-profit corporation listed in the New York Stock Exchange as American States Water Company. In January 2017, its share price averaged $45. Even though it is headquartered in San Dimas, it is a big name in the water industry as it serves water to more than 76 communities in California. Golden State Water Company categorizes Claremont’s water system in Region III, which includes areas in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Imperial and Orange counties. Instead of having individual rates for cities, Golden State Water Company sets a standard rate for regions, meaning Claremont residents are subsidized for repairs and infrastructure improvement for cities nowhere near them, such as Barstow and Apple Valley—areas also served by the company. “I think that the question of local control is always a serious issue, and if you have a good city government then I think it’s in your best interest to control all of your stuff – the water, the electricity, the trash, the roads, everything,” Clark says. “Most cities, particularly in Los Angeles County, have control over their own water. Local control in our day and age is probably a good thing.”
Brian Bowcock, Three Valleys Municipal Water District board of directors representative for the cities of La Verne and Claremont, has being working in the water industry for more than 56 years. As an elected official, he has represented the two cities on the Board since 2003 and notes the difference in water prices for the two cities. “I live in La Verne and compared to what Claremont is paying for water right now, their bill is over two times what I’m paying for my water,” Bowcock says. “In La Verne, I get other services and maintenance, but in Claremont, it’s just water.” La Verne residents are given sewage services, garbage pick-up and paramedic service, he says. Bowcock has lived in La Verne since 1978 and has been drinking the water since. “About the water quality in La Verne: I drink it, my grandchildren drink it, my great grandchildren drink it,” he says. “There is no issue with La Verne’s water.”
When compared to other nearby cities, Claremont residents pay about 27 percent more than Glendora residents and about 62 percent more than Upland residents, according to the Rose Institute of State and Local Government. They pay twice as much as La Verne residents.
According to Golden State Water, the bi-monthly charge for a one-inch meter for a La Verne resident is $36.40 while Golden State Water customers, such as those living in Claremont, pay $77.20. That is a starting charge, as the actual water costs layer on top of the meter fee. With the fees combined, 82 percent of Claremont customers pay between $134 and $159 a month. “Certainly the price is the No. 1 issue, but I think there’s a feeling in many cities, not only Claremont, that you want to control your destiny, whether it be the police or fire,” Clark says. “There’s a lot of dispute and discussion along the Los Angeles basin about whether the city or county should own things. This is the one major area that Claremont did not own, and there’s a real feeling of wanting local ownership rather than having a company no matter how operative it is.”
La Verne joins with Claremont
In February 2014, the Claremont City Council and the La Verne City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding with a vote of 4-0. The agreement allowed Claremont to evaluate whether La Verne’s water department was a viable choice as its water system operator. Later that year, Claremont proposed a ballot measure called “Measure W” for its resident voters: the city would authorize a revenue bond up to $135 million to purchase Claremont’s water system from Golden State Water Company. City officials said the bond would be repaid from lowered water rates. Claremont voters approved the bond by more than 70 percent in November 2014. “There are many advantages and disadvantages to it,” Clark says. “So far, we’ve only had one question, and that is whether we were willing to pay to buy the system, and I did vote ‘yes,’ to support it.” Claremont city officials first tried to negotiate a trade for the water system but were denied every time by Golden State. In October 2014, the company finally proposed a value: a whopping $222 million – much more than Claremont had originally valued its water system. In early June 2016, the city of Claremont and Golden State Water Company went to court to settle the dispute.
The city of La Verne was dragged into the conflict when Golden State Water Company’s attorney George Soneff fired a shot at La Verne, saying La Verne was unfit to operate its own water system as well as Claremont’s because the lead in La Verne’s water exceeds the maximum contamination level set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). According to the U.S. EPA’s lead and copper rule, no more than 15 parts per billion per liter in more than 10 percent of sampled customers’ taps is allowed for water to be considered safe for drinking. Should lead levels exceed the permitted amount, the public must be informed about steps to protect their health. Golden State Water said on two occasions that La Verne’s water had exceeded that level at 15 parts per billion in 2009 and 28 parts per billion in 2012, according to the Claremont Courier. This court punch by Golden State Water compelled La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick to fire back a heated response to Golden State officials. “Over the course of the last year, we have been forced into participating in legal proceedings regarding Claremont’s desire to acquire the Claremont water system,” Kendrick says in his open letter to Denise Kruger, Golden State Water’s senior vice president of regulated utilities. “The City of La Verne has attempted to remain neutral in this matter. We support Claremont’s efforts and will assist them should they be successful, yet we recognize that your company provides water service to approximately 800 customers within the city of La Verne. That being said, the Council and I are extremely troubled by the statements and mischaracterizations that have been used by you and your attorneys as to our water system operations.”
La Verne water sources
The drinking water running through La Verne’s aging 1900 era pipes is actually a blend of groundwater and imported water from outside the area. The groundwater is obtained from eight municipal wells, but the city receives most of its water from the Three Valleys Municipal Water District, a member agency of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Three Valleys receives water from the Colorado River and State Water Project in its two main treatment plants: the Weymouth Plant in La Verne and the Miramar Plant in Claremont. But while the ornate, temple-like Weymouth plant is squarely in La Verne’s city limits on Wheeler Avenue, none of its processed water goes to La Verne’s residents. That water is sent west to neighboring communities. The Weymouth Plant is located closer to La Verne, but the city actually receives about 72 percent of its water supply from Three Valleys’ imported water from the Miramar Plant. Richard Hansen, general manager and chief engineer for Three Valleys, has been overseeing the treatment plants since 1981. “We’re testing our water daily, and sometimes multiple times during the day depending on what we’re testing for,” Hansen says. “We also have a continuous online monitoring, which gives us an indication as to whether or not we have any problems in the system. It’s not 100 percent foolproof or maybe a calibration needs to be checked occasionally, but we do have this system that we’re constantly monitoring the water for chlorine and pH.” Water enters the plant and is then treated with chemicals in a process called flash mixing. After being mixed with the chemicals, any large particles such as dirt, algae and organic matter in the water will clump together to form flocs, which will sink to the bottom of a sedimentation basin to be removed. From the sedimentation basin, the water goes into dual media filters of sand and anthracite before being held in reservoirs in Diamond Valley Lake and Lake Matthews to be distributed to Three Valleys’ primary customers, La Verne and Claremont. “We’re either adding chlorine or ammonia called chloramine as a disinfectant along the way,” Hansen says.
Lead in drinking water
Lead can enter the drinking water system in a multitude of ways, according to the U.S. EPA. Some lead contamination comes from the direct water source, but usually it is the result of pipe corrosion in service and home plumbing. The U.S. EPA also states about 20 percent of a person’s total exposure to lead comes from her drinking water. In early August, Golden State Water provided court evidence showing La Verne’s water exceeded the maximum contaminant level for lead, with 15 parts per billion in 2009 and 28 parts per billion in 2012. “While we respect Golden State’s desire to do what it can to protect its assets, we find these deleterious tactics and statements that our operations are inferior and injurious to our residents are far beyond acceptable and certainly not something befitting a service provider of our community,” Kendrick says in his letter. “These attacks are creating an acrimonious environment that can only be disruptive to the customers and residents we both serve.”
In response to the Inland Valley Bulletin article titled, “Golden State blasts La Verne’s water quality record, citing lead and E. coli contamination,” La Verne stated on its website that the city found higher than normal lead levels in a few residential locations in 2012, but it did not affect the water system as a whole. It also addressed the E. coli contamination claim, stating that fewer than 200 residents were affected, and that the issue was resolved quickly.
The city of La Verne routinely conducts water quality test at residential locations, taking more than 50 samples a week, Bowcock says. City officials contact the residents of the house for permission before sampling the water from the faucets. If the water tests positive for any pollutants, the city works to solve it right away. Bowcock says La Verne may have had one well tested positive for lead in the past, but the city notified the residents in the affected area and resolved the issue. “That’s the biggest joke I’ve ever heard. In a water system, you’ll get a plume of bad water; it still won’t be that bad,” he says. “They had one of the wells in La Verne with high nitrates, but they fixed it right away.”
Three Valleys Water does not come from local wells. It is filtered through the Grand Canyon, and water officials certify it is safe. According to Three Valleys’ 2015 water quality report, no lead was detected in its treated imported water. “It can happen anywhere in anybody’s system, and generally what it is, it’s the older homes and older plumbing that might have lead pipe, joints and solders, and some of that can leach out,” Hansen says. “When you test it, and you find lead, you know there’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. My understanding is as soon as La Verne became aware with it, it was dealt with immediately.”
Lead contamination is serious business; lead may not be visible in water, but it can be a silent killer. Drinking water with high levels of lead has many dangerous health effects, especially for young children because they can be affected by an amount that may be considered insignificant to adults. Children who are exposed to low levels of lead have experienced learning disabilities, shorter statures, impaired hearing and damaged nervous and circulatory systems. Adults can suffer from reproductive problems and decreased kidney and cardiovascular functions.
Taking it to court
After a five-week battle in court, both sides finally rested their cases on July 15. Judge Richard Fruin of the Los Angeles Superior Court called for additional trial hearings and allowed each side to make its closing statements. The closing statements concluded in early September, which gave Fruin 90 days to make a decision. Those 90 days were finally up on Nov. 10. Golden State Water emerged as the victor after Fruin issued a tentative decision in favor of the company. A final decision was issued Dec. 9, 2016, which came definitively in Golden State’s favor when the judge issued a 41-page decision that refuted every claim made by Claremont. Judge Fruin wrote, “La Verne is not as qualified as Golden State to maintain the safety and reliability of water provided in the Claremont service area … Golden State is the superior operator of the Claremont water system compared to La Verne with respect to water quality, safety and reliability. This is true, even apart from La Verne’s recent test and reporting discrepancies, because Golden State has greater expertize [sic] in water management, familiarity with the Claremont water system and provides continuing training to its personnel on water quality issues.” The ruling is a teeth grinding setback for Claremont, which has looked into the idea of taking over the water system for decades.
La Verne Magazine reached out to the city of Claremont and city of La Verne City Council members, but was told the Council members are unable to answer questions due to the continuing litigation of the water system purchase. “We are extremely disappointed in the court’s tentative decision,” Claremont Mayor Sam Pedroza said in a November press release. The Claremont City Council will meet in January 2017 to consider a possible appeal.