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John Perry, San Juan Capistrano's water watcher

How California's taxpayer revolt trumped water rates that encourage water conservation

It started with a few ticked-off residents of the Orange County town of San Juan Capistrano. The city was charging them too much for water, they argued, in violation of the California Constitution, courtesy of Proposition 218, a taxpayer-revolt law passed in 1996. A state court of appeal agreed last month. Now San Juan Capistrano — and by extension other cities — may have to stop conserving water through tiered pricing that's based on the principle of "the more you use, the more you pay." One of those residents is John Perry, who also finds himself a San Juan Capistrano city councilman, a member of the body that runs the city he sued, the same body that now has to find its way through the rigors of drought.

You and water go way back.

Further than you know. In high school, a friend whose dad worked for the DWP got us summer jobs. They sent me to the Owens Valley, to Bishop, to repair the road [for] the power lines that come out of the dam. The people there absolutely hated L.A. When I was assistant superintendent for schools at La Habra, Placentia and Orange, water was one of our major expenses. I did everything I could to minimize the amount of water we put on the grass. When I bought my house in San Juan Capistrano in '91, people were talking about water problems.

I'm a tier-one water user. We live in a condo; I've got about a three-by-five patch of grass in the back, for the dog.

What got you started questioning the cost of water?

In 2002, San Juan Capistrano started talking about this great new [ground]water plant to take water out of the [San Juan Basin] aquifer and clean it up; it's going to give us water reliability in a drought or earthquake. And I thought, "How can a small community afford that?"

Then water rates started going up, due to the fact that we were making our own water; it was twice as expensive as what we could buy from the Metropolitan Water District. I began to be a critic, saying it makes no sense. I got to be a regular at the council meetings; they would just sort of dismiss me.

In 2010 they decided on [a 40% total] rate increase, bang, and these draconian water tiers. They said they were going to have a Proposition 218 hearing, and I said, "I wonder what Proposition 218 is?"

Proposition 218 restricts cities' ability to levy a fee; you can't levy a fee unless you incur a proportional cost. If you have a fee not covered by the cost, it becomes a tax, and if a tax isn't voted by the people, it becomes an illegal tax. I thought that made sense.

We wrote a letter to the city asking could you provide us with the cost information? Respectfully, etc. Never heard back. So we sent another letter asking again, saying if we don't get the information we'll be forced to file suit. Didn't get an answer. So then we filed suit.

Now you're on the city council, and the rain boot may be on the other foot.

I got appointed [to fill a retiree's slot on the council] for a two-year term. I had to build a firewall. When we talked about the lawsuit, I couldn't participate.

But in the last few days, the new city attorney said you could be a part in all actions on water issues?

I think it's my obligation. I told him I didn't have a conflict. I severed the relationship with [the lawsuit plaintiffs ] in November; I'm not going to get anything financially out of this [decision], nothing. The city attorney agreed, so I'm back in now.

Your court victory means cities and water agencies may have to stop using tiered pricing as a way to cut water use. Many would argue that money from tiered pricing goes toward conservation or buying water.

Conservation [and water purchases] are legitimate costs. But you can't have a $9 rate when it costs you $4. Water is a life-support system; you can't make profit off a life-support system. You can have [high] water rates as long as they're legitimate and verifiable and transparent.

Some ratepayers cheer your legal case, but I bet you hear from people who don't.

I get called names I can't repeat! But I do get praise from people saying finally someone is speaking up for the people.

What about conservation?

We've talked so much about conserve, conserve, conserve.

We have to come to grips with it. Are we going to continue to have lawns? The government is saying let it go dead, rip it out, put in rocks and sagebrush. Is that going to be our future? I'm not ready to do that yet.

I look at the last 70 years of rainfall and it looks like a saw blade: peaks and valleys. We happen to be in a four-year valley, which is unusual. I'm not convinced that it's not going to rain some more. The people who believe climate change is going to change everything — if that's the case, we are going to have to do away with golf courses and parks and green spaces.

We've pumped the San Juan Basin down to such low levels that the tree roots are not getting into the water table. Are we prepared to take all the trees out too, along with the grass? Because they go together. When we water the grass, we water the trees, and a large part of the water goes back into the ground, and nature purifies it.

Did you ever read "Catch-22"? It's one of my favorite books because it presents crazy alternatives: If you do this, this happens — everything is linked. Our whole water system is built around slowly melting snow, and it's partitioned out to the farmers and so forth. [If drought goes on] we have to reorient the whole thing.

How would you get people to save water?

You reward the people who save water. You can't punish people to make them change, but positive reinforcement always works. You reward good behavior, you get more good behavior. Maybe with a water credit, maybe a cash rebate — some actual, tangible reward for saving water.

People need to save water in every way they can till it starts raining again. Here's my long-range solution: Purify our sewer water. Go sewer to faucet. We can do this with reverse osmosis and make absolutely pure drinkable water out of sewer water for a reasonable cost. We can recover 80% of the water we now throw away.

We don't have any new water. We haven't had any new water for trillions of years. The water we drink now is the same water the dinosaurs drank. So when people curl their lip and say, "I can't drink sewer water" — you're already drinking it. Nature purifies it.

How do you pay for that?

You make the case to the public to float a bond issue. [Or] you can do it with a private partnership, a big water company to build and operate the plant and sell the water at a guaranteed price to municipalities in return for the sewer water; [the companies] rake off a little profit. Under Proposition 218, if you want to do a capital project, you can sell bonds and do it, but it takes a vote of the people. [Government agencies] can't just say, we're going to do it because it's good for you and you want us to do it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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