High Desert Water District in Fee Fight
In this expanse of desert, a political dust cloud is forming that may become visible across the state.
The Bighorn-Desert Water Agency, covering 40 square miles along California 247, is in a part of California that most people only see on their way to Big Bear or Las Vegas. But the district is the target of a recently approved ballot initiative that could trigger challenges in other California communities.
Measure S, which calls for reducing or eliminating taxes, fees and assessments collected by the water district, passed 432 to 398.
“This has the potential for statewide impact,” said Catherine Apker, deputy director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. “This kind of move can get on a freight train and have a life of its own.”
In neighboring Yucca Valley, an identical measure was defeated almost 2 to 1. Before the election, it was Yucca Valley’s Measure U, backed by the Morongo Basin Militia and Yacht Club, that had garnered the most attention. Water agencies statewide were still breathing a sigh of relief over the defeat of Measure U when news of the passage of the initiative in the more remote Bighorn district trickled down the grapevine this week.
Both initiatives were placed on the ballot under Proposition 218, which was designed to give voters the right to reject taxes, including those on utilities. It requires fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot than do regular initiatives.
Water rights experts believe the victory in the Bighorn territory marks the first time a Proposition 218 initiative against a water district has passed.
“This is curious. It shows people still have this expectation water should be free, or they shouldn’t pay much for water,” said Larry Rowe, general manager and chief engineer of the Mojave Water Agency, which oversees the Bighorn district and other desert agencies.
“But we’re hung on the end of a 400-mile straw, for Pete’s sake,” he said, referring to a pipeline that delivers state water from Hesperia to the high desert. “People get their water bill every month, but they don’t understand the environmental issues and engineering involved. I think this is a wake-up call to the water industry to educate our customers.”
Although the Bighorn district includes the tiny community of Landers, it is mostly made up of far-flung residences, some sporting signs with messages such as “Keep Out, Keep Alive.” Only about half the homes in the district are connected to water lines. The other customers must truck water to their homes. The district operates several stations where users can, for about $40, load up 2,000 gallons of water to take home.
The meetings of the Bighorn water agency are held in a building half a mile down a dirt road off the highway. The howl of coyotes could be heard above the din in the packed meeting room Tuesday night, where 36 people gathered for the first board meeting since the election.
The measure’s chief proponent, Thomas Bulone, stood in the back of the room, flanked by his supporters.
Bulone served on the district’s board of directors from 1991 to 1994. During his tenure he asked employees to take pay cuts. He said he resigned because of death threats and because someone left a rattlesnake in his mailbox.
Bulone, 47, a former rubber stamp manufacturer who now lives on a fixed income because of a disability, said he has merely struck a chord that resonates with community anger that has been building over decades.
“This board wanted to live on steak and caviar when the community could only afford hamburger and Kool-Aid,” he said. “They refused to downsize even when property rates were going down the toilet, and people were pulling out their water meters and trucking water in.”
Bob Hefner, 77, a water district board member, said one of his greatest desires has been to get water lines to every house in the district, but now he says he is concerned with assuring people they will get water at all.
“If this is implemented we’ll run out of money, but the one thing I do know is people will get water,” he said. “For one thing, we owe the federal government money. Maybe Mr. Clinton will have to step in. But it’s like a house, when you owe money on your mortgage and can’t make your commitments, then someone else takes over. You’re gone, but the house is still there. Somebody’s going to take over and get these people water if the district goes bankrupt.”
Backup Plan Uncertain
However, it’s not clear just who that somebody is.
“There’s not a safety net in place that I’m aware of,” said Gerald Shoof, a water-rights attorney who represents several agencies in the desert. “If there isn’t potable water, the Health Department steps in, but they board-up houses. They declare the area unsafe. They don’t run water districts. And I can’t imagine any other water district wanting to take it on.”
Bulone said his intention is only to make the district more accountable to voters.
“If they go bankrupt, it will only be to punish the voters,” he said. “This wasn’t about destroying the water district, it was about giving people a choice in how their money is spent.”
Several board members indicated they planned to challenge the initiative in court, a move that Jonathan Coupal, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said was a “death wish” on the part of the water district.
“The situation in Bighorn was a community subject to a levy they didn’t vote on, and they were angry about it. The district had a chance to convince the voters of their credibility, but they didn’t do it,” he said. “Their first mistake was stonewalling, spending $95,000 on a lawsuit to keep the initiative off the ballot, which they lost. Now the people have voted and the district is going to spend more money going to court again, instead of concentrating on how to save the district and respect the voters’ demand to have control over their taxes.”
Coupal expressed surprise and dismay that the district would claim it’s going bankrupt.
“This is an irresponsible way to run government,” he said. “The district and Bulone need to sit down and mediate.”
Ron Bangert, the district’s general manager, said the district has enough savings to survive 14 months before going under.
“However, that’s 14 months in which a court can say this is not legal, or people can come to their senses and pass another initiative,” he said. “We’re going to survive.”
But Bangert said that working with the initiative’s proponents on a compromise was out of the question.
“I don’t eat with pigs. I don’t pick up snakes and I don’t play other people’s games,” he said, echoing tensions and antagonisms that were only slightly cloaked under the veil of politeness at the public meeting.
Whether the Bighorn-Desert View Water Agency survives or not, water experts say a warning has been issued to water agencies, letting them know they’re vulnerable.
“This is scary as a precedent,” said Shoof. “What unfolds in Bighorn is not going to be a pretty picture. Maybe the only beneficial thing to the rest of the state is that it will be so bad, water agencies will . . . make sure people understand what they’re paying for so other voters don’t even consider doing the same thing.”